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Dec15ThuHelped by The Salvation Army when her life hit a low ebb, Carol Willems knows what it is like to be in despair at Christmastime December 15, 2011 by Ken Ramstead
“Could you please get your car and drive it to the church entrance?” the Salvation Army pastor asked Carol Willems a couple of days before the holidays.
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What an odd request! a panicked Carol thought. Are they going to fire me and ask me to haul away all of my things? The separated mother of two was already depressed as the Christmas season approached and had thrown herself into her work as a way of filling the void. What would she do now? Obediently, she backed the car up to the front door and was told to open up the trunk.
What happened next was something she will never forget.
Carol had been working in the social-service sector ever since she had graduated with a degree in sociology and anthropology in 1989. For three years, though, she had been the sole breadwinner to put her husband through college. She thought they were living a middle-class dream.
In short order, however, her marriage broke up and she lost custody of her daughter and newborn son.
“Whenever I talk about that time, I say that heartache came to visit,” smiles Carol through her tears. “It was very traumatic for me. I'd taken sick leave—my son was a twin and I had lost his brother in pregnancy—and losing custody of the children broke my heart.”
A Trunkful of Hope
Alone and despondent, Carol still felt a desire to be useful. But what to do?
Carol contacted the Dundas, Ont., branch of The Salvation Army's family services office in late December and offered her services. With her background, she was engaged to do a research study on shelters.
But with next to no income, limited access to her children and Christmas coming, Carol was at one of the lowest points in her life. “My life as I knew it had ended and I seemed to be marking time, with no hope and no future,” she says now.
That's when her Salvation Army supervisor asked her to back her car up to the church door.
The pastor signalled inside and, one by one, staff and co-workers came out with bag upon bag of groceries and piled them into her Volkswagen— enough food for her to get through the holidays, and then some.
“It's hard to receive that kind of love,” Carol admits. “But at that time, there wasn't much in the cupboard, so I couldn't decline it. I was immensely blessed by that act of kindness.”
Later at home, a grateful Carol thanked God.
“If you can help me clean up the mess I've made of my life,” she prayed, “I'll serve You and The Salvation Army all the days of my life.”
A Family Reunited
Carol eventually went back to work full-time. Not long after, work colleagues approached her to see if
she could develop a family shelter program for the Oakville, Ont., Salvation Army.
“It was the opportunity of a lifetime for me,” she says, “and the answer to prayer. God used that work to heal me and be a blessing to others in the midst of my losses and trauma. Thanks to God and the Army, I put my life back together again.”
Carol is now a member of the Army and is the director of two Salvation Army shelters in Oakville. Her daughter is pursuing her university studies, and her son will soon join his sister when he completes high school.
“God's love never fails,” says Carol. “Helping hurting families and journeying with them through their brokenness was something I could relate to. I could understand their circumstances because I myself had been impoverished.”
Willing Hearts, Helping Hands
When asked for a story of someone helped during the holidays, as she had been, Carol thinks of Marie, “a spectacular lady with two boys to look after.”
Despite limited mobility and income, Marie was determined to stay in the community where her children had been raised. Her hope was to have a home for Christmas, but Carol was unable to find affordable housing for her and her family as Christmas loomed.
After another fruitless day of searching, though, Carol told Marie, “Don't worry. I don't know how, I don't know when, but God will provide.”
“I can't say what prompted me to promise that,” continues Carol, “but the next day, a housing provider stepped up and made a dwelling available for the family, and Marie was granted the housing subsidy they needed.
“It was a miracle,” smiles Carol, “but this is just one of the many miracles I've seen since I started working with The Salvation Army.”
But miracles don't happen on their own. It also takes contributions from caring, committed people all over Canada, especially at Christmastime.
“God uses willing hearts and hands,” says Carol, “and everybody has an opportunity to give. However much or little you put in the Salvation Army Christmas kettle makes a huge difference in the lives of those we help. The Salvation Army is a voice for those who have none, and each and every donor plays a part in the good work that we do.”