Perhaps just as iconic as the red kettles and bell ringers are the trees adorned with Christmas wishes from children all over our area, called Angel Trees.
Dropping a coin in the red kettle at Christmastime helps fund many of the Salvation Army programs, one of which is the Angel Tree program. Majors David and Marina Womack have been with the Salvation Army for 30 years, the last decade of which they have spent as majors. Together they have been called to work in seven different states, and have been in Benton Harbor for the past two years.
When they’re not laughing at each other’s jokes and finishing each other’s sentences, they are in complete agreement that they are exactly where they are supposed to be — together — and doing the work of God with the Salvation Army.
While Marina grew up attending church at the Salvation Army in her hometown, David didn’t attend until his later teen years. Through a series of fortunate events, the couple met while in their final year of college when they both began training to become part of the Salvation Army. Becoming fast friends, the couple eventually married and began their journey together, to have a family, and become majors with the Salvation Army.
One of their favorite Salvation Army projects is the Angel Tree program.
“Each year,” Major David says, “we take between 400 and 600 families and help get the children gifts.”
Angel Tree is a program that provides gifts for youth 12 and under. Qualified families fill out gift requests for their children, and tags go out to the community to fill up trees.
“Trees go up right around Thanksgiving, community members pick a tag, or tags, from the tree, purchase gifts and return them to the business they got the tags from, unwrapped. Either the business drops them off, or a SA representative will pick them up,” says Major David.
“Each tag that is attached to a tree has a child’s age, short wish list and some helpful details, like sizes or favorite colors,” Marina says.
Once all the tags have been turned in, the real volunteer work at the Salvation Army begins. Volunteers sort through applications and tags and gifts and thousands of toys that are donated to them through the local Toys for Tots campaign.
“They essentially set up a toy shop, right here at the Salvation Army,” David says.
Parents are then instructed when to come to pick up their child’s Angel Tree gifts, or to “shop” the toy room, if their tag wasn’t chosen.
“Distribution is an exciting time. People will tell you it’s kind of crazy, but it’s controlled chaos,” Marina says.
Once all registered families have received their Angel Tree gifts and have had the chance to “shop the toy shop,” Major David says they always have extra.
“We are more than happy to give them to members of the community who maybe have a new need they didn’t have at the original application time, or just didn’t make it in time to sign up,” Marina says.
Angel Tree gifts, and Christmas programs, have been a tradition for many years in the Salvation Army.
“In Benton Harbor about 85 percent of the people are below [the financial] threshold,” David says.
“When we are able to help provide these gifts, that helps them free up some of their income for necessary living expenses, so they won’t have to struggle to pay rent or utilities, or buy food, just because of the holiday season,” Marina says.
In their 30 years with the Salvation Army, it is likely their work with the Christmas program has directly impacted more than 10,000 families. Of all these families, Marina holds the memory of the time they were working in Kansas and they had three tornadoes within five miles of their home, which affected 300 homes, right before Christmas.
“We were helping families that had never asked for, or needed, help before,” Marina says. “Oftentimes, we are helping the same families year after year, but sometimes we get the people that have short-term obstacles that have come up and they aren’t going to be able to buy their children gifts at Christmas. This is what this program is all about. Helping people from all walks of life, to be able to share in this holiday and celebrate the season.”
Every family that is approved also receives a supplemental food card from Meijer, so they can have a nice Christmas meal. Meijer works with the Salvation Army, based upon their budget, and gets them cards that their families can use for food.
“It’s much more enjoyable to be actively involved in being a part of solution,” David says.
Photos by Angie Marciniak