The holiday season is the busiest time of the year for The Salvation Army. With that in mind, iBi sat down with Major Evie Diaz, the new divisional commander of The Salvation Army’s Heartland Division, which serves central Illinois and eastern Iowa. Major Diaz came from a Salvation Army family, attended Olivet Nazarene University, and was most recently the assistant training principal at The Army’s College for Officer Training in Chicago before coming to Peoria.
How did you become involved with The Salvation Army?
I come from a Salvation Army family—my parents were corps officers. I decided at a young age that was where my path would lead. I have a sister and a brother who are both in ministry in The Salvation Army.
I made my own decision to join the church as a teenager. I worked at camp—a lot of young people work at camp and find their calling there, either to The Salvation Army or another kind of ministry. I went right from college to attend the officer training college, and then, as a Salvation Army officer, I spent the first few years working in the local corps in the Midwest. I also spent three years in Europe.
Explain your career path prior to becoming divisional commander.
I have had a pretty varied career path. I spent a number of years and three different stints at our College for Officer Training in Chicago. Education has always been important to me, so I kind of fulfilled that desire to be a teacher by teaching at our college. My role there was in personnel and field training, and most recently, I was the assistant training principal. I oversaw the youth work for western Michigan and northern Indiana for a few years, and I was also the territorial youth secretary, where I oversaw the youth ministry and programs for the central United States.
What is the College for Officer Training?
It’s a 22-month program, with some academics, primarily in the areas of ministry and Bible theology, and a lot of field work. Out of those 22 months, about three are spent away from the college in practicum at a local Salvation Army in the Midwest. We also do a Christmas practicum, because for us, Christmas is so crucial, and it’s really good to get hands-on training.
Tell us about your experience in Latvia.
I love travel and cross-cultural experiences, and The Salvation Army offers that to you—we are an international organization. It just felt like the right time for me to go somewhere outside of America. I had studied Spanish, and at the time, I was getting connected to a Hispanic congregation and refreshing my Spanish, so I thought that’s where I’d be headed…
So I was called to the administration office…and they said, here is the position available to you—it’s in Latvia. And I thought, I’m sure they don’t speak Spanish in Latvia! But the position was really tailor-made to my gifts and what I felt the Lord was calling me to do—officer and leadership development and education—so it just fit me perfectly. So I went! It was an adventure, really.
Were there already Salvation Army operations in Latvia?
Yes, prior to World War II, there had been Salvation Army operations in Latvia, but that got pushed out and went underground. All internationals had to leave, and the country ended up as part of the Soviet Union. But during and after the war, there was a small underground group of Latvian Salvation Army personnel who continued to stay connected with each other. When the Soviet Union collapsed, these officers, who were quite elderly at this point, sent word to The Salvation Army in Sweden and said, “Hey, we’re here, come help us!”
By the time I got there, The Salvation Army was about 10 or 12 years old in its new, post-Soviet Union incarnation. They didn’t have a training program for officers, so they were in a leadership crisis. People were coming from all over the world to help, but they really needed Latvian leadership to move forward. That was my role: to help create a Salvation Army training program for Latvians.
A lot of miracles happened along the way. The property that The Salvation Army had owned prior to the Soviet Union went back to private ownership, but you had to prove that you owned the property. Somehow, someone found the piece of paper that said it belonged to The Salvation Army. So we actually have the original property that The Salvation Army had before the war, which is amazing.
How big were the cultural and language barriers?
The language was really difficult. [Latvian] is a very complicated language. It does have a Latin alphabet, fortunately, so once I learned the pronunciation, I could read. But as far as the structure and rules of grammar, it was pretty difficult. Fortunately, there were about eight young college girls who would come to my house every week for a Bible study; they wanted to learn English, and I wanted to learn Latvian. I did go to classes while I was there, but how I really learned was from that little group.
Culturally, it was interesting because they were pushing out of the Soviet Union way of thinking, trying to get beyond that. They just joined the European Union and were trying to be very “western” in their thinking, but there was a real crisis because there was this traditional Russian/Eastern European way of thinking that was left over. It was a very interesting time, culturally.
Have you spent any other time overseas?
I spent eight weeks in London. The Salvation Army has an international college for officers—a leadership training course for officers who have been in The Salvation Army for a number of years. I’ve also done a couple of mission trips to Haiti. My brother lived in Haiti for about six years and ran a children’s home there.
How is The Salvation Army involved in Haiti relief efforts?
We are very much involved. Initially, we were identified as the primary relief agency for the disaster, and we sent dozens of people down to do emergency disaster work. My brother went back for about three weeks to lead a team. Now we are in recovery mode.
The Salvation Army has an international team on the ground. In some ways, they are helping to funnel funds from all kinds of international agencies back into the country. A lot of our Salvation Army properties there were damaged. The children’s home is not livable; the headquarters and the primary Salvation Army church in Port au Prince were leveled. So they are also rebuilding what The Salvation Army has there.
How does The Salvation Army coordinate with other organizations in such situations?
They do try to network as much as possible with the other agencies on the ground in Haiti. They joined forces with Doctors Without Borders right away, because The Salvation Army ended up being a shelter. They were putting up tents and everyone came to a soccer field connected to The Salvation Army property. Suddenly, there were tens of thousands of people who needed to be fed, and water provided and medical attention. So they joined with all kinds of other agencies to address that group. That would be when you saw the pictures of the layers upon layers of random pieces of cloth or tents—that was right next to The Salvation Army compound.
Why was The Salvation Army the lead agency in Haiti, and not, say, the Red Cross?
Some of that is decided locally, based on the resources of the two agencies, because we are both local and international. In this case, The Salvation Army already had a system in place in Haiti, with personnel, offices and what they needed to be up and running immediately.
We always work together as much as possible. Depending on the resources, sometimes the Red Cross is the first in, and we might be long-term recovery—or it could be reversed. We try not to duplicate [services], but work together to coordinate our efforts. Most of the time there is some kind of coordination team in place that would assign who does what.
What are the responsibilities of the divisional commander?
I’m the administrative head of The Salvation Army in central Illinois and eastern Iowa—the oversight of our business and denominational work is managed through my office. That is the broad sense of it. I also provide pastoral care for the officers who are running the local Salvation Army centers and the team that works here.
How does the operational structure work, with 72 counties in the Heartland Division?
We do two different kinds of work out in the field. We have our local Salvation Army Corps community center, and in the larger communities, we have property with a building run by a local officer. They do denominational work, [such as] Sunday services and youth ministry. In many places, it’s a community center, with a gym, daycare center, afterschool programs, shelter, etc., depending on the local need. There are 24 of those units in the central Illinois and eastern Iowa area.
We also have service extension units, mostly run by volunteers, which are a way for us to provide emergency needs—social services, perhaps shelter and disaster services—to a community. The oversight is from this building. We have a service extension director, but usually it’s a local volunteer who will spend a few hours, one or two days a week, seeing people and providing food vouchers or pantry items. There are over 100 extension units in my area.
What are the challenges of covering such a wide territory?
Since I’ve only been here a few months, I have not traveled a lot yet, but I have already visited eight of the 24 units outside of Peoria. I try to be out two or three Sundays a month to be part of the worship service. During the week, I’ll go out to meet their advisory boards or see hands-on what they are doing in their communities. My goal is to be at all of those 24 places two or three times a year at some level. We also have an officer team of six others in this building, as well as two key employees in development and social services, and they do the same—so it’s not only me. Then they come back and share information; it’s a lot of teamwork.
It is not easy to oversee that wide of a territory, mostly because every community is different. In rural areas, the needs are very different from what we find in Peoria or Springfield or Waterloo, Iowa. So that’s the difficulty—to be equitable in our support and with what kind of community needs there are and how we can resource those needs. That is, in my opinion, the most difficult piece of it, to understand each individual community.
Does the Heartland Division receive money from the national organization?
We rarely receive money from the national level. Nationally, they do more of the community relations, PR and governmental work in Washington D.C. They also know high-level people in the country, like Laura Bush, who serves on the national advisory board. So they give us credibility at that level, but as far as funding goes, it doesn’t usually trickle down unless it is a major donor or foundation. For instance, Joan Croc and the Croc Foundation gave money to the national headquarters, which then filtered that down [to the local level]. But, generally that wouldn’t happen unless it was a major donor or foundation.
Even here at divisional headquarters, we don’t do fundraising. We try to keep our management costs low. It’s really the other way around—the local Salvation Army supports us with the stores and their Christmas fundraising, although 90 percent or more of that stays local. We provide a lot of the finance and PR support, so there are some administrative costs that come back to us, but it’s very small. The majority of our funding is local and stays local.
The last few years have been pretty devastating for the less fortunate among us. Are you seeing a large increase of those in need?
In the last couple years, we have seen incredible increases, but that’s kind of leveled out now. And we are finding that, instead of more people needing help, it’s the same people who need longer-term help. So we used to do emergency services—somebody who couldn’t make it until the end of the month and needed groceries, or lost their job and needed shelter for a month before they get a new job and are up and running. But now, we are giving people much longer-term support. In the end, this is more expensive, but the positive thing is that we can really help people transform their lives.
It’s more than just a bag of groceries now. It may be retraining or providing budgeting help. We don’t have a clinic, but we have people who come in for mental health concerns and nurses who come in to provide medical support. We do things that will make people healthier in the long term. So that’s the shift that we’ve seen—that it’s the same people who are coming back.
The average stay at the family shelter has increased from 60 days in 2008 to 120 days. People aren’t getting back on their feet as quickly. So the numbers may be stagnant, but it’s the length of help we are providing and the kind of help. When somebody is in the shelter for 120 days, you offer a much different support to them, to really stabilize their lives.
Our counselors are trained to help people find school or some kind of classes they can take. So we help them get into a retraining program and help them stay accountable—follow up with them and make sure they are really attending and learning and getting the retraining that they need.
In our family shelter, caseworkers work specifically with those who are living in our property—it is pretty intensive, hands-on help with them. We also have caseworkers for those who walk in off the street, who maybe don’t need a place to stay but have all kinds of other concerns—rent, utilities, food. And these caseworkers would try to do more than just hand them a voucher or a bag of groceries, but help them think through how we can avoid this happening in the future. Right now, the best thing our caseworkers provide is that they know where the best resources are for rapid re-housing or long-term utility assistance. Sometimes, someone’s bills are too high, and they need someone to help sort that out, and our caseworkers know those resources, what’s available in the community.
On the flip side, how has the recession impacted donors?
I think the truth is that people reach deeper into their pockets because it’s in front of them. So we have been really fortunate and blessed. We have continued to see people give personally. The effects would come with government grants—many of them come from the state, and Illinois doesn’t have money. Even if we are granted money, it doesn’t always come, because the money isn’t there or it’s much slower to come back to us. Plus, major donors like foundations have lost much of their giving income, so we have to be more intentional with those kinds of donors to really tell our story. What we find is that when we tell our story and they hear how we are making a difference in the community, people try to give what they can.
So, then, would you characterize the financial situation over the past few years as stable?
I would hesitate to say that because the cost of living continues to increase. So while we continue to see people giving, our costs are higher, so we do have to cut back on budgets. We have tried to be careful about cutting back on services we provide, because that’s who we are. We would try first of all to cut back on management and administrative costs. But ultimately, if the costs of everything we provide keep going up, then we are going to have to start cutting back on the services we provide.
What has changed the most with the nonprofit world in general, or The Salvation Army specifically, over the past five to 10 years?
Big question. One of the things I would say is that we have to be more intentional about working together, about networking, because the needs are so much more complex—society is so much more complex—and no one agency can address all the needs of any one person. So we have to work together, with the government, with other nonprofits and with the businesses and foundations that can provide the funding.
That’s a big change that continues to happen. It involves a lot of time and energy to build those relationships and understand each other’s roles. But in the long run, I think it’s a very positive change. Rather than having a lot of agencies being lone rangers out there, it’s really more beneficial to the community to work together.
The other thing I see is that we are more interested in long-term support to people. We used to see people who would come to the pantry once every two months, and we thought that was helpful. And it was. But now we want to know how we can get them out of that cycle. There is more real support for changing people’s lives, which ultimately changes the community.
And that would be the third thing: How can we change and transform the community? Because that’s how people are changed—if the community is changed—and that has to do with education, with security…when people feel like they are safe when they walk down the street. And those are bigger issues that go back to the complexity and need to work together.
What is something that most people don’t know about The Salvation Army?
A lot of people don’t know that we are a Christian church, our own denomination—we are more visible with the services we provide in the community. Unfortunately, that leads to small congregations. It’s not so much that we want to say, “Hey, look at us, we are a church,” but the church also provides volunteer support and lay leadership to community programs. It kind of goes in a cycle, and in that way, it’s important for people to know that you can come worship with us and serve.
The other thing is…because we are a Christian organization, some people think we are selective or exclusive about who we serve, and that’s not true. We are committed to serving people regardless of their gender, their faith, their belief system or their lifestyle choices. We believe God wants us to serve everyone and help everyone in the name of Jesus. He doesn’t limit who we can serve because he reached out to everybody. iBi
» Providing food baskets, toys, clothes and holiday parties is part of the work of The Salvation Army during the holiday season. While donations to the Army provide for this assistance, funds raised during this time of year also support its year-round programs and services. The Salvation Army endeavors to meet the needs of the less fortunate in our communities through programs such as:
- Christmas food baskets
- Adopt-a-Family program
- Children's Tree program
- Toy Shop
- Prison Toy program
- Coats for Kids
- Community Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners
- Holiday parties for youth and older adults.
The Salvation Army also provides several volunteer programs:
- Office help for the Christmas Center
- Toy shop
- Serving of holiday meals
- Basket distribution
- Wrapping gifts
- Bell ringing at the red kettles
- Helping at holiday parties
- Participating in Dress-a-Doll and Dress-a-Bear programs
- And much more…
For more information, call (309) 655-7272.