CHATHAM CHAT | Salvation Army of Chatham

As holidays near, Army is dedicated ‘to helping create a community where every person thrives’

Director Rebecca Sommer-Petersen shares outreach effort

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The Salvation Army of Chatham County enters a busy holiday season seeking support and volunteer help — all in the name of giving it the best opportunity to meet the needs of Chatham residents.

This week, we speak with Rebecca Sommer-Petersen — the director of the Army’s Service Unit, which is located in Siler City — about the organization’s holiday outreach efforts.

Sommer-Petersen grew up in Winston-Salem but went to college in the northeast: she earned a degree in drama from Ithaca College and then turned to the ministry, getting a master’s degree in Divinity from Boston University, followed by a second master’s — this one in Philosophy, Theology and Ethics — from B.U.

She forged careers in ministry and social services, most recently leading the Council on Aging in Northfield, Massachusetts, and its Senior Center. In between, she served as a youth pastor and counselor, day care owner/operator and a caregiver support specialist.

She moved “back home” a year ago. Her husband, Rodney, just retired from his position as executive director of Cooperative Metropolitan Ministries in Boston. A Harvard- and Princeton-trained scholar and author and former pastor, he’s accepted a position as a visiting professor at Duke University.

“I just came to a time in my life when I realized I wanted to get back to North Carolina,” Sommer-Petersen said. “So when the job became available, I decided to jump on that. I’ve always loved the area, and Chatham County is beautiful.”

Christmas isn’t far away, and you’ve put out a call for bell ringers. Why do you need them, what’s the experience like, and why is it so critical to the Salvation Army’s holiday campaign?

The Salvation Army raises our largest amount of funding during the Christmas Kettle holiday campaign. The money donated in the kettles is put to work in Chatham County to provide direct services to people in need. We can use it to help pay for assistance, such as rent, utility bills, medicine, food and clothing for our neighbors who are struggling to make ends meet.

We have seen a dramatic increase in requests for assistance since 2020 and that has shown no signs of slowing down. Many folks have suffered through serious illness or are caring for a loved one with a serious illness, have lost a job, or have lost an income-bearing partner as a direct result of the pandemic. We sincerely appreciate every penny our fellow Chatham County residents donate to help lift their neighbors out of hardship. We are dedicated to helping create a community where every person thrives.

We open Kettles on Monday, Nov. 14. We’ll have Christmas Kettles at two Walmart locations (Chapel Hill and Siler City) and four Food Lion locations (Briar Chapel, Governors Club, Pittsboro and Siler City), as well as the Fearrington Village’s Farmers’ Market and the Lowes Foods on U.S. Hwy. 15-501.

What’s it like to ring the bell, for those who haven’t done it?

The experience of volunteering during our Kettle campaign is being right in the middle of a flurry of activity. The bell ringers are not sedentary but are often involved in conversations that lead to offering hope or sharing a joyful memory.

Our newest staff member, Tom Roswick, started out as a kettle volunteer. He shared the story of a person who came to him at a storefront kettle and told him they were homeless. Tom was able to connect that person with a Salvation Army Case Manager and provided a tether to the community that same day.

Can you update us on the Army’s work to address homelessness in Chatham?

Since the beginning of 2022, our Service Unit has been working with the Housing and Homelessness Working Group of Chatham County. Out of that larger group effort to address some of the issues related to causes and experiences of people walking through homelessness, a small group of direct service providers, guided by Katie Childs of United Way Chatham County, has been meeting weekly to tackle the practical questions of how to serve people experiencing homelessness.

By working together in a collaborative manner, we have found some creative ways to assist with financial requests, share resources and build “nets” to assist residents who might otherwise fall through the cracks. Another asset our Service Unit has relied upon to help residents experiencing homelessness is collaboration with many Chatham County faith communities. Often, we call upon our faith partners to help with emotional or spiritual care needs. One goal of our Service Unit is to make sure that everyone who comes to us is provided with some sense of hope.

What’s the programming/outreach plan looking like between now and Christmas?

Tom Roswick, as I mentioned, is serving as our Christmas Coordinator, helping to manage the physical locations for bell ringers. Jane Wrenn, who has been with the Chatham County Service Unit for over 12 years, will oversee the entire Kettle campaign.

Our Angel Tree program for distributing gifts to families in need with young children, will run during November and conclude during the first week of December. Our Advisory Council is made up of community volunteers and is key to making our Christmas season successful. Council members Gail and Charlie Backof are the Angel Tree coordinators, as well as the power behind our newly-implemented food sales booth at the Countryside Antiques Mall. The food booth offers affordable grocery items to the community and each sale benefits our Chatham County Service Unit directly.

While our offices are never closed, we do request patience in providing financial assistance between now and January. In addition to our reliance on funding cycles, our staff and volunteers are concentrating on Christmas Kettle fundraising. Over the last two years, we have not raised as much as we need to fulfill our assistance requests. This year our goal is $65,000, which would allow us to meet our needs and to grow our programming. We welcome anyone to help us ring this season as we raise funds to continue building up our community. Please call our office at 336-763-6400 or email tom.roswick@uss.salvationarmy.org.

We have already received an anonymous donation of $5,000 to kick off the campaign, so we are feeling good about the ability to surpass our goal!

To reach Sommer-Petersen, email her at Rebecca.Sommer-Petersen@uss.salvationarmy.org or call 336-763-6402, ext. 65281. For questions about volunteering, call Tom Roswick at 336-763-6400.

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