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Army of good

Since 1981 the Salvation Army has been feeding the hungry and giving clothes to the cold, regardless of race, colour, creed or class in Yellowknife.

Jorge Barrera
Northern News Services

Yellowknife (May 09/01) - At noon Ron Whalen begins mixing juice for the soup line. The line-up starts to build outside the door to the Salvation Army's small soup kitchen a half hour before the kitchen opens.

Whalen works at the Army's shelter and volunteers on the soup line. Once 12:30 p.m. hits and the doors open he's a whirlwind of chatter and soup ladles.

"(The Salvation Army) definitely provides a necessary service to the community -- big time," says Whalen.

The Salvation Army, most notable in Canadian pop culture for its thrift clothing store and money bubbles at Christmas, is one of the country's largest non-governmental organizations, with operations in every province and territory except Nunavut.

Since 1981 the Yellowknife chapter has been involved with almost every aspect of the territory's social services, from corrections to food hampers, from homelessness to substance abuse recovery programs.

Larry Thomason is a community care worker. He helps people who end up at the bottom of the social ladder to become more independent.

Today he doesn't feel like lunch after cleaning up a mess in the bathroom.

"I got a little on my elbow and it still burns," says Thomason with a smirk.

It's part of the job and he takes it in lighthearted stride.

"I'm here to help guys make productive choices," says Thomason.

"Usually choices are about going back to school, finding work and getting over addiction," he says.

He's nearing his second anniversary with the Salvation Army.

"I wanted to try to help my community and this is one of the best places to do it," he says.

It's Friday night and the Salvation Army church sanctuary is hopping with the tunes of Bob Seger and the Tragically Hip's New Orleans is Sinking.

"I got my hands in the river my feet back up on the bank, looked up to the lord above and said hey man thanks," wails a man with a ball cap pulled tight over his forehead with a few loose hairs flat over his eyebrows.

It's jam night and people sit around playing cards, crib, pool, and soaking in the tunes.

Michael Catholique says he works for BHP and holds up a wrapped wrist.

He says he hurt it working on the crusher.

Catholique says he hangs out at the jam night sometimes. It's a good place to go he says, good tunes.

"I love it," he says.

"It should be open 24 hours," he says.

"We have people who call this place home," says Karen Hoeft, co-director of the Salvation Army.

"They come her from different backgrounds, social contexts, all ages," she says.

"Here we're working to bring down walls," says Hoeft.

Her main aim is break the ingrained social misconception that the poor are lesser "persons".

Hoeft believes that there are class distinctions in Yellowknife and she's working, through the Salvation Army, to give dignity back to people who've had it stripped away.

Packing food hampers with crackers, canned soups and bread, Hoeft says the Salvation Army is not about giving people charity.

"We open the door to opportunity but people have to grab it," she says.

The Salvation Army is part about catching people at the bottom, letting them gather strength and push on again on their own. The organization also reaches beyond reacting to needs.

It's currently chairing the city's homeless coalition which is trying to hash out a housing strategy in a city with a tight housing market.

The Salvation Army uses a budget of $2 million every year, and according to Hoeft's husband and co-director, Al Hoeft, half of it goes into salaries.

Last year the Salvation Army spent $152, 520 on food supplies and $78, 385 on meal supplies.

It also provides food services 5,021 times last year. Its drop-in centres were used 16,975 times.

According to its accountant Richard Feil, most of the funding the Salvation Army operates on comes from the community and contracts with different levels of government.

"Funding isn't guaranteed, contracts change, the needs of government change and the levels of support in the community change," says Feil.

But Feil says funding shortages are not anywhere on the radar for him.

"I've seen a gradual increase in community support," he says.

Delia Weir is busy hanging dresses and adjusting piles of sweaters and T-shirts at the Salvation Army's clothing thrift store. The room is packed with clothes and people and it's hard to move without bumping into a rack or a shopper.

Weir has been working with the Salvation Army for four years and she reflects the basic reason for the Salvation Army's existence in Yellowknife.

"I work here because I wanted to do something good for the people in Yellowknife," says Weir.