Memphis Salvation Army youth group gives, prays and serves
Approximately five years ago, Christina Roberts began volunteering at the Memphis Salvation Army. It was a way not only she, but also her children, could help the community. At the time, her children were in high school, and she was looking for ways to keep them engaged in beneficial activities.
Her son, Preston, had dreamt up an idea for his school’s Civic Service Organization, but it was rejected. Roberts pitched it to the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary (of which she’s now the rising president) and Development Director Ellen Westbrook, and the GPS Squad was born.
“GPS stands for the three ways you can serve The Salvation Army – giving, praying or serving,” Roberts said. “You can do one, two or all three. It’s a way for families or friends to get together and serve side-by-side. Also, we have them use a GPS device to figure out where we’re going to be next. ”
The squad started with a core group of youth and their families and has grown to the approximately 500 people on the email list now (though she notes some of those are family duplicates, with parents and children both signed up). The teenage volunteers represent schools all across Memphis.
“God has bigger plans than what we had in mind,” Roberts said. “We’ve been doing it for three years, and we’ve had raging success with getting people involved and knowing what The Salvation Army is besides the red kettles.”
A big part of the GPS Squad’s work involves the Memphis Salvation Army’s Purdue Center of Hope, which houses an emergency family shelter, a shelter for single women and Renewal Place, a two-year residential recovery program for drug-addicted women and their children. There are around 125 people there every day, including 40-70 children.
“We go one Sunday a month and put on a Family Fun Night,” Roberts said. “We’ll do things like cookie decorating and games, movie nights and dance parties or bingo. It’s just a way for the moms to let their hair down and relax and their kids to just have fun. That’s what we’re there for – to have fun.
“There’s a big parking lot, and twice a year – the Fall Festival and the Spring Carnival – we’ll use the [Salvation Army’s] mobile canteen to have a cookout, with a bouncy house and lots of games.”
The Family Fun Nights are so popular they’ve expanded to include the Kroc Center, the Salvation Army’s large community center that offers physical, mental and spiritual enrichment. Additionally at the Kroc Center, the GPS Squad has helped with the Easter Extravaganza (where more than 12,000 eggs are dropped from a helicopter onto the center’s soccer fields) and its anniversary celebration.
In the summer, the GPS Squad is the volunteer staff for Camp Hope, a day camp for children who are staying at the Purdue Center of Hope. It was started by children’s case manager Roberta Perry as a replacement for the canceled Shelby County Schools summer day camp. With Camp Hope, the children spend their days enjoying fun, educational activities while their mothers are looking for jobs or otherwise helping their family.
The GPS Squad has also helped with the Angel Tree warehouse, as well as gift wrapping (as many as 850 gifts) and stocking stuffing for the 125 men and women at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center.
“We never know where we’re going to be next or what we’ll be doing. We go in a lot of different direction,” said Roberts, who is still very involved with the squad, even though her kids have both graduated and gone to college.
Being on the GPS Squad and helping children has had a big effect on the teen volunteers, she added. Many of them attend private school, and this volunteering “makes them think outside the box of their little, perfect world.”
“To watch these teenage volunteers is fascinating. They are growing as much as the kids in the Purdue Center, who are seeing these familiar faces coming back and looking at them as role models. They’re building these cool relationships.”
One eighth grader was inspired after a Family Fun Night to create a prayer jar, which has now become part of the Family Fun Night ritual. She suggested to Roberts that they should have a jar for everyone at the Purdue Center to drop in prayer request, which will be lifted up at the next Family Fun Night.
“The first time we did it, we ran out of cards,” Roberts said. “The employees were putting their requests in too, and we didn’t think about that. So now, we’ve put a bucket in each of the shelters and at the front desk. At the beginning of every Family Fun Night, we get the buckets and someone does a devotion; then, we have a silent moment of prayer for the prayer cards and whoever did the devotion closes with a prayer before we go have fun.”
The devotions and everything else the GPS Squad does is managed electronically. There are no meetings to discuss plans; instead people sign up online for everything, and event details, maps and reminders are emailed to them. This means the only time the teens have to devote to the GPS Squad is the time for events.
“Kids don’t have time for meetings. We use a SignUpGenius, where they use their phones to sign up. They volunteer to bring stuff on the day of the event or to do certain activities at it.”
She said this works out for the pace of life these days. It also helps to draws the teens into volunteerism, which is something she hopes they’ll continue.
“The GPS Squad has been a wonderful way to get people involved who are not the typical folks who want to get involved. When you get teenagers involved and excited about something, you’re planting seeds for the future. Once they graduate, if they come back to Memphis or go to another city, there’s going to be a Salvation Army there for them.”