By Stephen Harrison
On October 2, 2014 the twenty-sixth and final Salvation Army Kroc Community Center opened in Camden, NJ replacing the aging Haddon Avenue facilities. The 120,000 square foot facility was the final center opened using part of the $1.6 billion dollar donation left to the Salvation Army by Joan Kroc, the late widow of McDonald’s CEO Ray Kroc, both of whom were recently portrayed in the film “The Founder.”
The Salvation Army is more than just a social services and outreach organization, it is it’s own religious denomination founded by Englishman William Booth in the mid 1800s with a hierarchal structure that resembles the military, with clergymen given titles such as Lieutenant, Major, Colonel and more that denote their ranking within the organization. All of the soldiers within the army are ordained ministers.
Camden NJ is one of the country’s poorest cities. According to the United States Census Bureau it is estimated that 39.9 percent of the city’s residents lived below the poverty line between the years of 2011 and 2015.
Dabiel Valdes is a lieutenant in the Salvation Army and works at the Croc Center.
“We are a spiritual army, an army for God,” said Valdes, 32. “Our goal is to get deep into the community, attacking the need that is most evident which is the poverty. We try to identify and target marginalized families.”
In addition to outreach and donation services the Kroc Center provides a way for the Salvation Army to provide residents with a variety of services designed to encourage community and provide dignity for those in need. Included in the center are a chapel, a theater, a waterpark for children, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, dance and yoga studios, meeting halls and a food pantry.
Valdes uses the gymnasium as part of an outreach program aimed at teenagers by organizing a volleyball program. He lets all of the teens know that he is accessible any time they are in need and says the program lead to one of this most memorable successes.
“One night I went home, and around 3 a.m. my phone started ringing so I picked it up and said ‘hello? Hello?’ and the person on the phone was one of these teens. At that moment that teen was going through a rough time at home. A parent came home very drunk, was hitting mom, was throwing him and things like that.”
“He was lost,” Valdes said. “He said I don’t think I can do this anymore… So to me, that was a big thing, to be able to be there for someone who was probably thinking about running away or taking their own life.”
Valdes says he still remains in contact with the teen, who still provides regular updates as to what is happening in his life.
Major Sue Dunigan is a 32 year veteran of the Salvation Army and is part of what is called the “incarnational services” which focus on living in the community that is being served.
“We believe very much in building relationships, not so much programmatically but building relationships within the community, personal relationships,” says Dunigan.
She moved into an East Cramer residence blocks away from the Kroc Center on Camden’s east side.
“People feel comfortable coming to me not just because I’m from the Salvation [Army] but I’m their neighbor,” said Dunigan. “They see me in my bathrobe and a cup of coffee, or a crazy hair day walking my dogs. But also in my uniform, and they are also comfortable coming to us in times of crisis and emergency.”
Dunigan hosts a meal service and bible study every Wednesday night at the Mission House, a building specifically designed as part of her outreach program and is attached to her residence at Cramer Hill.
Carmen Rosario, 36, credits Dunigan with a major turnaround in her life.
Rosario is a single mom of four children. The Salvation Army invited her to a Cinderella project (a program designed to pamper women around Christmastime).
“From there I started to go to the church,” Rosario said.
“I was struggling with depression and anxiety. I would cope with my depression with alcohol,” she said. “After I started going to the Salvation Army and working with Major Sue, little by little… Life before I used to drink every day all day,” says Rosario. “It affected me in a big way. I left the streets alone, and focused on my kids and learning about the Bible.”
Dunigan says that ultimately all of the outreach and social services the Salvation Army provides are part of an evangelical philosophy, saying that people cannot properly serve and worship god until their most basic needs are met.
“That is part of our goal, but our goal is more to build relationships with Jesus and build the kingdom of God, and love people the way Jesus would,” said Dunigan.
Camden has long had a reputation for violence and poverty, but Valdes believes that is slowly changing, at least in part because of the efforts of groups like the Salvation Army.
“I’m part of a clergy group and everybody have the same mindset as me, they perceive the same thing. Camden is changing, it’s transforming, little by little,” Valdes said.