‘I’m not bashful about asking people for help, not at all.’

Published 11:20 pm Saturday, June 16, 2012

This story isn’t about Sue Tolbert.

Nor is it about the approximately 100 other members of the Salvation Army’s Women’s Auxiliary.

It’s about the work of the volunteer organization. Sue just tells the story of some of the amazing action done to alleviate the problems and sufferings of the less fortunate.

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The Auxiliary helps the Salvation Army with its programs by having fundraisers as well as providing hands-on assistance in numerous situations. Sometimes there are specific needs such as buying the range on which hundreds of meals are cooked weekly to be given to the needy.

The biggest effort in raising money is the annual Soup and Sandwich Luncheon and silent auction. There are also annual dues, a mere $10 (or $125 for life). Though the Auxiliary is primarily a women’s group, there are some male members. “We call on them to help us,” Sue said, for there are some projects they can’t do without the men, who are often their husbands and sons.

Another endeavor is operating the thrift store, again a volunteer effort. Most donations are local, and all the money raised is kept here.

Sue joined the Auxiliary in the 1990s after 35 years in a government job. After a few months in retirement, she was bored, so she went to work in the bookstore at the Vicksburg National Military Park. Soon she was manager.

She had never thought of volunteering and gave on her own through the church she attended. A co-worker, the late Virginia Morton, changed her life by inviting her to join the Auxiliary.

“I was too busy,” Sue said. “I kept resisting. Well, you didn’t say no to Virginia.” There were six ladies at the first meeting she attended and the bank account had only a few hundred dollars. Both the membership and the bank balance have grown considerably since then.

Not all the work done by Auxiliary members is routine though floods, hurricanes and tornados are the disasters that make the headlines and demand the time, talents and dedication of the members.

Last year longtime residents knew the Mississippi River flood was coming, but as Sue remembers, “We had no idea of the magnitude.” Vicksburg’s Salvation Army was between officers, so Auxiliary members advised the Jackson office they needed to prepare.

“Find a building,” they were told, so one of the Salvation Army board members, Dixie Briethaupt, began looking. The old Blackburn Motor Company building on Washington Street was perfect, and arrangements were made for its use. A cleanup was necessary, and Sue, Phyllis Renfroe and Pearl Carter took charge. Volunteers, including crews from several churches, went to work, and the doors were opened May 18.

Then the real work began. Sue manned the front desk, meeting those who came in for assistance, and Pearl (“who had the nice air-conditioned office”) put all the data into a computer where it was determined from the applications what could be provided for each family or individual. Phyllis was the overall coordinator, the point of contact for donations, and she talked to folks all over the country.

Assistance was needed not just for those who were forced from their homes by the rising waters, but also by those who were out of work because their places of employment had been flooded. There were families whose income from maybe $800 a week had been reduced to $125. Housing (and the Auxiliary worked closely with FEMA) was needed as well as something to eat. In less than a week the Salvation Army ran out of food.

That’s when a miracle happened.

The bishop of the local Mormon church offered help. In a few days an 18-wheeler arrived from Salt Lake City hauling $25,000 worth of food, all pre-boxed and ready for distribution.

Another disaster, in 2010, was when a tornado hit Eagle Lake before skipping over into Yazoo County. Lt. Herb Frazier was with the Salvation Army in Vicksburg, and he and Sue and a rep from the Jackson headquarters took the disaster truck to Eagle Lake, then two days later Sue and Phyllis were in Yazoo County, where they were handing out food. Sue drove the truck, and the major in charge questioned her qualifications and ability to be at the wheel.

“Well, I learned to drive a tractor,” she said, “I guess I can drive it.”

The major soon agreed, and Phyllis teased, “I’m not getting in that thing with her,” but Sue retorted, “Yes you are. Get in here,” and soon, with roads opened, they were handing out drinks, snacks and sandwiches to the workers and to the victims.

The worst disaster Sue has experienced as a member of the Salvation Army Auxiliary was Hurricane Katrina.

“Nothing else could compare,” she said. Volunteers gave out food in the parking lot until supplies were exhausted. Local pastors came to offer counseling, sometimes being able to do nothing for people “but hold their hands while they cried.”

“We saw people who said they had never asked for help before in their lives,” Sue said. “You’d be surprised at the number who came back and said ‘Thank you.’”

During the last few years Sue has developed a passion for the homeless, a plight where no two situations are alike. There was the case in December 2010 when it was miserably cold and she heard of a young man living in his car in a parking lot. Despite being only in his 40s, he had suffered several strokes, could not work, and through no fault of his own was destitute.

“I’m not bashful about asking people for help, not at all,” Sue said, and she got enough donations to get him a room in a motel, then into a house, and he has finally been granted disability and can now take care of himself.

Lately she’s been involved with a family who until recently had been living in their car since last August. There was the father with a minimum wage job, his diabetic wife who was confined to a wheelchair, and a teen-aged daughter. They simply could not sustain themselves. Thanks to the Salvation Army Auxiliary, they’re in a house. The woman has two broken ankles and must have surgery. The daughter helps, but the father shoulders the bulk of responsibility, “so we continued to give them food out of our pantry and help as we can,” Sue said.

Very recently a situation that really tugged at Sue’s heartstrings was the plight of a young woman with two children, one a baby, who was out of a job, was living in a house with no water and no electricity and only a few days remaining on the paid rent. The baby was very, very sick. There was no money for medicine or food, and the father had deserted them. The woman’s best hope was to return to her parents in Michigan.

The pharmacy at Kroger provided medicine, but the Auxiliary was out of funds. Sue visited the woman and her children and took them to her house. She began seeking money for bus fare.

“I was an emotional wreck,” she said — and then another miracle happened. She doesn’t know who did it — “I don’t have a clue” — but someone bought plane tickets for the woman and her children.

There are many charitable organizations, as well as government programs, but the Salvation Army stands alone. There are millions and millions of dollars spent for the needy, and there have to be rules. Some abuse the system, Sue said, but most don’t. Some organizations have rules that they can help you one time, or maybe two or three times a year, but that’s it.

“I can see the flip side of that,” Sue said, “where there are people who through no fault of their own need more help, people who are living on the edge.” She doesn’t agree with the theory of, “I’m giving you a loaf of bread today and you go get a fishing pole and take care of yourself from now on. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Sue certainly seeks no credit for herself. “I’m a facilitator,” she said. “I reach out and touch other people, and they respond. There’s no halo over my head. God knows I’m a sinner, but I pray every day. All I know is that when I read what Jesus tells us to do — that’s why He was here.”

Though there are many good organizations, Sue said, she chose the Salvation Army “because they are faith-based.” In addition to their physical assistance they also provide Spiritual help. They operate a church and a youth program, and the local Corps officer, Capt. Srikant Bhatnagar, who is an ordained minister “is so full of energy he reminds me of a hummingbird flitting around.”

Sue grew up on a farm in Madison Parish near Monticello and came to Vicksburg to attend business school. When she was about 9, she was concerned about another child who wore tattered clothes, so she quietly (and anonymously) gave her some of her own. “That’s my earliest memory of being aware that no matter what shape you’re in there’s always someone who is worse off,” she said.

“A lot of people tell me that I get too personally involved,” she said, “but I can’t help it.” She’s no longer bored — hasn’t time to be — and she and the other Auxiliary volunteers will never run out of things to do “because there’s a disaster happening around us every day.”

Gen. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army in the 1800s, did much to alleviate the suffering of humanity.

He could have done a lot more if he had had a Women’s Auxiliary.