New Salvation Army director says ‘whack-a-mole’ method won’t get clients to self-sufficiency

Posted 8/11/21

SILER CITY — When it comes to working to tap into the latent resources and volunteer power available within Chatham County, the new director of the Salvation Army Service Center here describes …

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New Salvation Army director says ‘whack-a-mole’ method won’t get clients to self-sufficiency

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SILER CITY — When it comes to working to tap into the latent resources and volunteer power available within Chatham County, the new director of the Salvation Army Service Center here describes herself as the “quintessential cockeyed optimist.”

But Becky Sommer-Petersen — whose long career in Christian ministry and social work, primarily in Massachusetts, just recently brought her home to North Carolina — is also a realist.

“We just can’t keep playing ‘whack-a-mole’ and throwing money at problems,” she said. “We are working to get our clients to long-term financial stability and self-sufficiency.”

Back in April, Sommer-Petersen assumed what is essentially a new position created with Chatham County’s growth, and the needs of its working poor, in mind. Her arrival expanded the Salvation Army Service Center’s Siler City staff from two to three. Long-time director Jane Wrenn is continuing to oversee the Salvation Army’s emergency financial assistance programs; Donna Smith will focus on case management and coordination.

“They were strong,” Sommer-Petersen says of Chatham’s Salvation Army, “but they just needed some assistance in becoming stronger.”

But when she settled into her office this spring, what Sommer-Petersen found was an agency “at capacity.” The Salvation Army of Chatham County has been serving dozens of families and hundreds of individuals in crisis situations from its offices at Chatham Trade — a community rehabilitation program and facility off old U.S. Hwy. 421 in Siler City, which also houses West Chatham Food Pantry and Chatham Transit. The Army’s clients are those people who find themselves in need of emergency financial assistance for things like utility bills, rent or rapid rehousing. A growing population, the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of affordable housing in Chatham have contributed to the demands on the agency, and Sommer-Petersen said the needs among the working poor are only multiplying.

The factors that compel residents to call the Salvation Army vary — ranging, she says, “from a job loss, an unexpected medical bill or car repair, abusive relationship issues, or some other type of social change.” There are so many in dire straits in Chatham County that the Salvation Army has developed a waiting list of those needing assistance while the agency helps those it can, and Sommer-Petersen works with her staff and the divisional headquarters in Greensboro to expand operational capacity.

Assistance the organization provides is given as part of a goal to avoid the real possibility of homelessness for residents who cannot meet their basic daily needs. Clients become a part of Salvation Army programs like “Pathway of Hope,” which works toward helping them become more financially stable and self-sufficient. Assistance is typically given once every 24 months to avoid recidivism, and the Army’s staff — which has worked primarily remotely during the pandemic — works to collaborate with other community agencies and resources to provide optimal support and results.

“We ask the client to find other resources on their own so that they can feel empowered about helping themselves and to hopefully motivate them,” Sommer-Petersen says. “It is important to have measurable goals so that we can successfully track any progress or issues.”

She may be new to the agency, but the position certainly isn’t a leap for Sommer-Petersen: she says she knows the Army as a “tried and true” organization, having worked with plenty of Salvation Army staff and volunteers back in Massachusetts. And her heart has always been in mission, outreach and program work, designed — as she headlines her resume — “(t)o leave the world in better shape than I found it.”

So the job is a natural fit. 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 Pastoral Care from Boston College in 1992, followed by a second master’s — this one in Philosophy, Theology and Ethics — from B.C. in 1995. 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

But she had a desire to get back “home,” where she has an ailing father (in Winston-Salem), a son (in Asheville) and a sister, a niece and a nephew who live not far from Chatham County. So she started keeping an eye on job postings within the state.

“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.”

Her husband, Rodney, is back in Boston and preparing a move here. He’s 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.

“He says he sent me off to war,” Sommer-Petersen jokes. “A war on poverty in Chatham County.”

In her first 100 days, she’s focused on implementing changes in protocol within the agency and familiarizing herself with other local agencies and potential collaborating partners, including area churches.

The county’s affordable housing crisis, she says, always seems to be a part of the discussion. She thinks about efforts to develop some kind of shelter in Chatham County or even a facility like the Greensboro Salvation Army’s Center of Hope, which provides housing and food for up to 36 single women, 20 men and 10 families for a 30- to 90-day period. The Greensboro Army’s “Shelter to Success” program also helps provide clients with a housing plan developed to help them move directly into affordable housing as quickly as possible, and then provide up to a year of home-based case management support services after the move to help maintain housing stability.

But for now, Sommer-Petersen is saying “no” new programs as existing programs are shored up. The Salvation Army just wrapped up its annual “Stuff the Bus” school supplies program, done in conjunction with Walmart, in Chatham. She’s thinking ahead to the holiday season and the Salvation Army’s large Angel Tree program and “red kettle” fundraising campaigns, as well as chaplaincy outreach, providing spiritual nourishment to families as well.

“We’ve asked everybody who’s asked for assistance if they want it — giving them an option of having a partner for prayer or a chaplaincy visit,” she said.

“The Salvation Army of Chatham County has always been at the forefront of assisting people in various ways and partnering with organizations like the United Way and the county and the churches,” she said.

She’s also reaching out to local farms and businesses to explore potential partnerships and meeting with and developing the Service Center’s advisory board. She may still be the “new” person, but for Sommer-Petersen, her position is just a continuation of what she’s done, and what she’s seen, throughout her career — meaning that she’s come home in more ways that one.

To reach Sommer-Petersen, email her at Rebecca.Sommer-Petersen@uss.salvationarmy.org or call 336-763-6402, ext. 65281.

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