Celeste Smith was well acquainted with the Seattle social scene and an insider among the city’s exclusive social clubs. She sits on boards, has served as president (multiple times) of prestigious clubs, and lives in a nice home on the affluent eastside of the city. Celeste recounted to me that as she passed Salvation Army Bell Ringers outside store fronts at Christmas time, she would regularly donate to the iconic Red Kettles. However, she said she never stopped to think about what her donations meant for the person on “the other side.”
Celeste Smith says she donated to The Salvation Army, but she never expected to be in need of The Salvation Army’s help.
Until, that is, she became that other person. After being diagnosed with aggressive stage 2A breast cancer, Celeste underwent heavy treatments, leaving her exhausted and unable to continue her job as a realtor.
“I had a lumpectomy in April, radiation July-August, and chemotherapy and Herceptin treatments which concluded in October 2009. During this time and since I have had no income except a Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) check of $339.00 a month, food stamps and the generosity of friends.”
Celeste filed bankruptcy, her house went into foreclosure, and she had to sell her belongings or borrow money from people in order to make ends meet. She soon felt hopeless.
“I was so despondent. There was no place to draw from,” she said. “It’s not just about being depressed, it’s about feeling hopeless. To me, that’s a different thing. I couldn’t find one thing to take any kind of hope in. It was a moving thing for me. When I got to that point, I realized this was huge.”
Celeste sought out help and was referred to The Salvation Army (TSA) to begin to get a grasp on her finances. She visited February 17. During her appointment, Celeste’s Salvation Army caseworker talked to her about utility assistance through the emergency financial assistance umbrella program. That same day, TSA pledged $269 towards her overdue utility balances, which covered her outstanding electric bill, and all but $60 of her gas bill. The funds were paid to the companies, which postponed Celeste’s pending utility shut off, and TSA made an appointment for her with another organization called Hopelink to cover the cost of her remaining gas bill. She left that day with her utility service intact and a short term plan for her finances.
Once without hope, Celeste has now found encouragement in the assistance she received through TSA, and she says she feels like she’s moving forward.
“I just have to take it day by day. Even though now I don’t know where I’m going, I’m fairly positive because I’m better than I was. I have gone through this for a reason, for my own life learning. Maybe the social world of private club life isn’t where I need to be. I have to be positive because I feel like now I have a little bit of a mission. I want to help other people.”
Celeste’s doctor says she is in remission and her prognosis is good. Celeste hopes to start a foundation that will help single, low income women like her who have been diagnosed with cancer. She says when she becomes more financially solvent she would like to continue supporting TSA.
“The process of requesting help from all agencies is laborious and difficult to navigate making a difficult process even more exhausting. If it was not for non-profits like The Salvation Army to pay utility bills and water I am not sure where I would be. In the dark I suppose.”
For more information about The Salvation Army’s ongoing efforts, visit our national website at www.salvationarmyusa.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
Whitney Schraw told me what a difficult process it could be when trying to pass through military check points as she traveled in and out of the West Bank and how suicide bombers’ attacks were on the rise – not exactly an experience I’d expect to hear about from a young American woman. After college, Whitney worked in Jerusalem as a project coordinator to spur job creation in the villages of the West Bank. She was also involved in disaster relief as retaliatory attacks between Israelis and Palestinians were not uncommon. Clearly, she was making the most of her Middle Eastern studies and degree in economic development. Whitney never expected to be working for The Salvation Army one day back home in Michigan, but when her graduate studies in London were later cut short, she returned to Grand Rapids to figure out the next step in her life. When she came across an employment ad for The Salvation Army, she applied, not knowing what to expect.
Whitney Schraw (left) and her assistant Evelyn Olson at a Customer Assistance Day event during fall 2009.
Now, four years later, Whitney serves a much different group of communities, doing the most good as TSA’s Utility Program Manager for Michigan. The utility program is a part of the Salvation Army’s larger emergency assistance umbrella in Michigan, which provides aid for low income individuals and families or those who are newly in need. Whitney oversees the management of utility assistance funds and supports the approximate 110 caseworkers across the state who work directly with those seeking assistance.
Michigan suffers from the nation’s highest unemployment rate (14.1% compared to the national 9.7%) and bitter winter temperatures, ensuring that there is no lack of need. Whitney says their office has seen a flood of new families seeking utility assistance, with 20,000 families receiving aid last year, 75% of whom had never received assistance from TSA before. April is their busiest month, when clients receive “crushing” ballooned heating payments from the past 5 months as a result of a statewide optional deferral program for shut-off protection through winter. Whitney says the average utility bill they get is $1200, though it’s not uncommon in some areas for outstanding balances to be $5,000 – $7,000. She was shocked to see a bill this year for $32,000!
Whitney explained that while they address the immediate crisis by paying all or some of the utility bill, they also help a client make a comprehensive plan for the future by creating a budget, examining other areas where financial assistance may help free up funds for other bills, and determining if improvements to a client’s home would increase energy efficiency. Whitney described this “layering of services” as “a dignified way of approaching the financial missteps of the past.” She said, “That’s very empowering. As The Salvation Army, that’s one thing we can do. We can talk about a plan, and a plan is something that empowers people to move forward and believe their situation can get better. For many, having a plan means having hope.”
Whitney describes herself as social and a team builder. Though her job sometimes requires her to be stuck behind a computer, she has been able to use her personable nature to develop friendships and vital partnerships for TSA. She serves as co-chair for the Coalition to Keep Michigan Warm, a group of agency, utility company, state, and trade organization representatives who meet once a month to promote ongoing dialogue about challenges, resources, and solutions for low income utility assistance needs. She has also gained increased financial support, with the state’s 4th largest utility company Michigan Gas Utilities now soliciting their customers for utility donations for TSA. After trying for the last three years to get the support of propane vendors, Whitney’s perseverance finally paid off this year as Inergy Propane and its 30 Michigan retailers will donate all proceeds they receive from recycled bottle propane tanks to TSA’s utility program.
Whitney is undoubtedly helping TSA do the most good for local communities, but it is very different from her work in the Middle East. I asked her, what makes this job worth it for you? She pointed to the TSA caseworkers she serves on a daily basis and who in turn serve the state’s most vulnerable families.
“When I can represent such an amazing group of individuals that are serving families in crisis,” Whitney responded. “When I can represent what they do, tell others how they shine, and in any way support their day to day work…sometimes just to help them laugh… In their shoes, I don’t know if I’d be able to maintain my faith and commitment, but they do it in such amazing ways! Proudly supporting them – that’s what makes this job worth it.”
For more information about The Salvation Army’s programs in Michigan, visit their Eastern Michigan Division and Western Michigan/Northern Indiana Divisions’ websites.