Time is running out for the Starkville branch of the Salvation Army.
B.J. Andol, manager for the Starkville Salvation Army store, says her branch of the community assistance mainstay is operating in the red and could be gone within a year if its situation doesn”t change.
“We”ve got the items. It”s not that we don”t have anything to buy,” says Andol. “It”s the fact that people are afraid to spend money right now.”
Andol says the weakening of America”s economy has caused the Salvation Army to take a devastating hit via decreased monetary donations. The West Point branch was forced to close its doors in June, and Starkville could be next on the list if the annual holiday boost falls short.
If that happens, Andol says a vital community support service will be lost, and those depending on the Salvation Army to help keep their lights on or put food on the table will have to look elsewhere.
Because the Salvation Army is self-supporting via the donated goods it sells, one could be fooled by the heaps of clothes and household items stored in its warehouse into thinking the store is in good shape.
The problem is that each bag of clothing and box of items must be sorted by hand, whether by an employee or a volunteer. But, in addition to Andol, the store only has two part-time employees. And they have to help run the store and assist clients in addition to sorting through the stockpile in the back.
“I work, normally, 14 hours a day during Christmas (season),” says Andol. “This morning I came in at 7:30 a.m. If I get out of here by 6 p.m. I”ll be doing good today.”
The Starkville Salvation Army has openings for two more part-time employees -the positions pay $7.25 per hour- and receives help from its 13-person board and two 20-student groups of volunteers from Mississippi State”s Day One program.
Additional funding is provided through the United Way and the Emergency Food and Shelter Program. But the store still needs more help and more money.
“We”re doing everything possible. We”ve lowered our prices, and you can”t get much lower. But we”ve lowered them,” said Andol.
Plus, kettle season will kick in after Thanksgiving, when volunteer bell ringers will set up at locations around Starkville soliciting spot donations from passersby.
The fundraising tradition will certainly bring some needed dollars for the Salvation Army, but fewer volunteers means fewer kettles. And fewer kettles means less money.
Andol is willing to work with volunteers to make things as easy as possible. Volunteers come in whenever they can and are allowed to set up almost anywhere they choose.
Organizations like the Starkville Police Department take their bell-ringing seriously, she says. The SPD was the Salvation Army”s top earner in both 2007 and 2008 before losing their spot in 2009. And Andol hopes to instigate a kettle competition between the SPD, the Starkville Fire Department and the Oktibbeha County Sheriff”s Office in an effort to raise more money.
But even if the kettle program is a roaring success, the money will be quickly spent.
The first priority is keeping the store open, as it is the hub for all Starkville programs. But Andol says the store”s rent and electric bills are both high.
After the bills are paid comes the distribution. The Salvation Army helps needy families or elderly individuals pay their rent or electric bills. It buys groceries. It buys new dishes, linens and furniture for fire victims. It helps support a Salvation Army children”s summer camp in Lexington. It funds two Christmas programs: Angel Tree for children, Golden Angels for the elderly; and a third program, Apple Tree, that buys school supplies for needy students.
Nick DiColandrea, one of 13 members of the Starkville Salvation Army”s board, says the store has taken steps to increase the store”s visibility and educate potential donors to what it accomplishes in the community. He echoes Andol”s sentiment that, at this time, work is more valuable than a bag of clothes.
“We welcome any used or good-condition clothes or furniture, but we need your time. We need the manpower,” he said.
DiColandrea remains confident that the Starkville store can turn its fortunes around before it comes to the same end as the West Point store.
“The holiday season is always our buisest part of the year. I think that”s going to help us out a lot,” he says.
Bert Lind, with the Columbus Salvation Army, has seen the worst case scenario come to fruition. The Columbus store assisted the West Point store until it was forced to close.
“We had to help them out to let them survive as long as we did. We got to the point that we had to make a decision, either let both stores go under or close (the West Point store),” said Lind.
Lind says the Columbus Salvation Army isn”t in dire straights at the moment, but it has seen an increase in clients from Clay County since the West Point store closed. The strain on the Columbus store could continue to build if the Starkville store closes.
Individuals interested in donating time or money to the Starkville Salvation Army can contact Andol at 662-324-3304.
Jason Browne was previously a reporter for The Dispatch.