FORT SMITH — Meredith Rea, a newer member of the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary, does not judge the down-and-out men and women she helps feed at the local Red Shield Diner.
“I wonder lots of times what their story is and how they ended up there,” said Rea, whose day job is as director of sales and marketing for Ross Athletics. “But I don’t pass judgment.”
She assumes many are victims of the shaky economy, left homeless and/or jobless due to circumstances beyond their control.
Rea helps provide, prepare and serve meals at the diner, an integral part of operations at the Salvation Army Red Shield Emergency Shelter, 301 N. Sixth St.. She fulfills this volunteer function mostly with a group of women from her church, Community Bible Church of Fort Smith. When she was ready step up her involvement, she became a member of the Women’s Auxiliary. This is her second year with the group, which has more than 100 members ages 25 to 95.
They come from all socio-economic backgrounds. They include retired grandmothers, working women, stay-at-home moms and college students.
“Before I joined, I was ignorant to the needs of the community,” Rea said. “It’s not just the Angel Tree.”
Capt. Charlotte Gargis, half of the husband-wife team that runs the Salvation Army shelter, echoed Rea’s sentiments.
“It’s not just about Christmas anymore. It’s 365 [days a year],” Gargis said.
The Salvation Army Red Shield Emergency Shelter provides daily meals, a laundry service and a clean, safe place to sleep and bathe for up to 40 men and 20 women at any one time. Hours are noon to 8:30 a.m. weekdays and all day on the weekends. More than 35,800 meals were served in the Red Shield Diner last year.
The Salvation Army “as a whole, is the best kept secret in Fort Smith,” said Gargis. She described the Women’s Auxiliary as “the army within the army.”
The Women’s Auxiliary has a long, if spotty, history with the Salvation Army in Fort Smith. It was active during World War II, but eventually disbanded. The group reorganized in 1953, but dissolved again in 1990. The auxiliary was re-chartered in 1999 under Capt. Beth Birks. Gargis and her pastor husband, Capt. Carlyle Gargis, have been at the Fort Smith shelter just a few years.
Women’s Auxiliary members pay tax-deductible dues, money that which goes to help run the shelter. Regular members pay $25, supporting members pay $30, and contributing members pay $50. Regular members are expected to attend half the auxiliary’s monthly meetings and provide hands-on assistance at the shelter. Supporting members are not expected to attend meetings, but can, and they’ll be notified of activities. Contributing members choose to let their larger donations do their work for them.
The Auxiliary’s purpose is “to raise public awareness of The Salvation Army, to facilitate services to the needy, and to strengthen the financial base of the local Salvation Army. Membership is open to all women in the community. Members are encouraged to participate and support the programs of the Auxiliary,” Gargis said.
This is the time of year women of the auxiliary renew their memberships and entice others to join. A meeting of the membership, and any potential new members, is scheduled for Aug. 21.
“We’re trying to get ladies in the community involved in a mission-minded way,” Gargis said. “It’s exciting to show them the many different ways they can serve.”
The list of committees is long. Women are needed to coordinate the Angel Tree holiday gift drive; coordinate bell ringers; produce a Salvation Army and auxiliary newsletter; keep a historical scrapbook of the membership’s activities throughout the year; help raise the funds and items needed for a kids’ summer camp; help coordinate supplies, donations and publicity for a Thanksgiving Day meal for patrons; help recruit families and individuals to donate, prepare and serve meals in the nightly soup kitchen; and much more.
Auxiliary members also help stock and man the Salvation Army’s Family Thrift Store at 900 N. 32nd St., take homeless kids back-to-school shopping and host a Shower for the Shelter, where the public is invited to tour the shelter and bring supplies such as sheets, bedding, towels, hygiene items, cleaning supplies, over-the-counter medicines and non perishable foodtsuffs, such as coffee, soups and canned meats.
For more information on the member orientation party, contact Capt. Gargis at (479) 783-6145.
“We want the new group to build on what the founding members started,” she said.