On a quiet street corner in El Centro sits a building that for decades has been a critical lifeline for the hungry and the needy—anyone in search of a little hope. That building is the headquarters for The Salvation Army and volunteers gather daily inside the kitchen to prepare hot lunches for those who otherwise might not have a chance at a meal.
Every day is busy for those in The Salvation Army Corps., both staff and volunteers, as they provide 130 meals to those in need.
However, the holiday season adds to their duties as the Army prepares for its annual Thanksgiving meal during which it will serve hundreds from throughout Imperial County. Immediately after Thanksgiving, the Army looks to Christmas when it provides both a box of food and presents for families in need.
For those who have given their lives to the Salvation Army, and those who give their time to help as volunteers, it is a labor of love—one they are devoted to year-round.
While the holidays may bring the most attention to the work of the Army, fueled in large part by the familiar bell ringers in front of local businesses, the programs the Army carries out continue all year not just through daily meals but through their efforts to inspire those who are struggling.
“We are a church and then a social service,” said Major Antonio Horta, who is currently serving as the Officer of The Salvation Army El Centro Corps on a short-term assignment, along with his wife, Major Aide Horta. “The Salvation Army is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. We are non-denominational, and we welcome everyone. We want everyone to have a sense of hope and to know that all things can be done through Christ.”
The Hortas, Antonio, who is 70 and his wife, Aide, who is 71, both of whom are technically retired after three decades in the Corps, were assigned to lead El Centro in September and could remain until June—as long as it takes to find a permanent director for the local headquarters.
“In The Salvation Army, we say you never retire,” Antonio said. “This is not a job. This is a calling.”
On any given day, along with the meals served and hot showers offered at the headquarters, across town at The Salvation Army church and auditorium there are Bible-study programs for residents of all ages, including children, and a nursery.
There is a program for women called the Home League to help those struggling for different reasons, from poverty to drug use, and give them a sense of hope.
Eighty-one-year old Christina Center helps lead the Home League program. She worked in The Salvation Army Thrift Store for 28 years before she retired in 2011, but even in retirement she has stayed involved.
“There is so much work to be done for the Lord,” Center said.
In sharing a story about the Home League program, Major Aide Horta told about a recent experience where she took women from the program to the Imperial Valley Mall, and for most it was their first time inside the mall.
“Many of them thought they could never go to the mall, like they wouldn’t be let in or they didn’t belong there,” she said. “They thought they could never afford to buy anything from the stores, but I showed them the sales, and they saw it was possible. That’s what we are trying to do—to give them a sense of hope.”
The Hortas said they’ll also be taking a group to see a Christmas event in Orange County simply to show that there is more for them to see and experience beyond the struggles they may be facing in life now—struggles that may keep them from realizing there is a world beyond their neighborhoods.
“We want to get them out of their poverty thinking and build up their self-esteem,” Antonio said.
For that reason, The Salvation Army also provides out-of-county youth camps for children, which can be beneficial to boys and girls who may never have a chance to take such trips and have never had a chance to have experiences beyond their communities.
For the Hortas, serving the Imperial Valley has been a meaningful experience because, they said, the need is so great in the Imperial Valley.
“We see hardworking people who are struggling,” Antonio said. “What we hear from people is that there just aren’t that many jobs available, and so the need becomes greater.”
The Hortas said they are pleased to be in the Valley to serve the region’s needy because it is a continuation of the service to which they have devoted their lives.
Antonio worked in construction and Aide was a chief caterer for University Hospital in San Diego before joining the Corps full time. They started volunteering for the Army in 1987 and became officers in 1990. During the course of their service, they worked thirteen years in Anaheim, eleven years in Los Angeles and then, after another eight years in Santa Ana, retired.
But retirement only meant starting the next phase of their service—post retirement service in which they lead Salvation Army centers for short periods when such centers are going through a transition in leadership.
“We are in the Army because we saw the need not only with the homeless, but with the children and families in need,” Antonio said. “We felt that calling, and that hasn’t changed.”
Aide added: “To me, it is a part of life. Even though we are retired, we could stay without doing the service we do. There is so much need and so much to do.”
Right now, there is so much more to do because of the holidays.
For Thanksgiving, the Salvation Army will need at least 100 turkeys and caseloads of all the fixings that are part of a Thanksgiving meal. Much of the food they receive comes from the Imperial Valley and San Diego Food Banks and local stores, including Costco, Food4Less, Lucky’s, Wal-Mart, Target and Aldis. Community donations volunteers are also key to making Thanksgiving possible.
Then comes Christmas. Since October, The Salvation Army has been working in communities throughout the Imperial Valley from Calexico to Salton City to sign up families to receive a box of food and Christmas presents for children.
By Christmas, the Army expects they will have some 600 families signed up for the program.
Karla Amador, who has served as manager for The Salvation Army Thrift Store and as an administrator at the El Centro headquarters, said all the extra work during the holidays is worth it.
“When you give something to someone in need, you see their smiles and that counts for so much,” she said.
Along with preparing for the holiday meals and gathering presents for children, this is also a critical fund-raising time for the Army. The bell ringers with their Salvation Army kettles will soon be seen at storefronts throughout the Valley.
Antonio said the goal this year is to raise $60,000, and all of that money is put to use for The Salvation Army programs in the Imperial Valley.
Aide said to see the extent of need from those struggling without a job to children who don’t have enough food is heartbreaking, but it is even more so at this time of year, and it is their goal to let them know they are not alone.
“For us to do the work of The Salvation Army is to open them up that there can be a bright future.”