“I'd never been in a place where I needed so much help,” she remembers. “When I went to a food bank for the first time, it was the worst I'd ever felt.”
She turned to The Salvation Army for assistance at Christmas six years ago, a decision that changed her life. Today, Johnstone attends Kelowna Community Church, B.C., with her two sons. She also works at the corps, where she co-ordinates Breakthrough, the program that helped her to deepen her faith and know Christ in a very personal way.
A Happy Christmas
In spring 2008, Johnstone found herself in crisis. Just as her marriage was falling apart, her newborn son, Noah, became seriously ill with a respiratory infection. “He was really sick,” she says. “We almost lost him when he was born.”
When Johnstone left her husband due to physical abuse, she suddenly found herself homeless. For five months, she and her two sons found shelter in a friend's motorhome.
“It was awful,” she recalls. “I couldn't tell my sons that we didn't have a home. I just called it camping.”
Though Johnstone spent the year trying to get back on her feet, she found herself in need at Christmastime and came to The Salvation Army for the hamper program. Signing up for the program helped her realize that she was not alone.
“There were lots of people there who needed help like me,” she says. “I felt cared for.”
Looking back, she says watching her sons enjoy their gifts on Christmas morning was an “amazing experience.”
“I just felt so blessed that they wouldn't have to pay for their dad's mistake,” she says. “They could still have a good Christmas.”
The following August, Johnstone received a phone call from the church's Connie Cristall, director of evangelism and discipleship, inviting her to Breakthrough, a program for single mothers that was starting at the corps.
“I was so excited—I was just praying for something like that,” she says. “Breakthrough was an important part of being able to engage in my own life again after everything that I had been through.”
Being a part of Breakthrough helped Johnstone develop an empowering support network.
“My whole life, I was disconnected from other women,” she says. “My mom left when I was 10 and I didn't feel that I could trust my stepmom. Meeting women at Breakthrough, I realized that we're all the same and there's incredible value that comes with sharing our life experiences and perspectives.”
Breakthrough is a program for those needing support in overcoming obstacles in their lives. Spanning a 10-month period, the program involves classroom learning, mentoring and volunteer opportunities.
“I have experienced such an incredible and profound sense of freedom since coming here”
It was during her time in the program that Johnstone began attending the church. She was providing childcare at Breakthrough and became close friends with Cristall. At the time, Johnstone was attending another church.
“I started to have questions about the church I was going to and I was able to talk about that with Connie,” she says.
After attending the corps occasionally for a year or so, Johnstone decided to make The Salvation Army her church home.
“It was an honest community,” she says. “I could be myself here, without any judgments.”
Thanks to Breakthrough, Johnstone already knew many of the people at the corps and knew that they cared about her.
“At Breakthrough, the church invested in us and believed in us, so it was natural to come here,” she says.
The corps has also been a welcoming community for Johnstone's sons, Noah and Casey.
“It feels like a family I didn't know I had,” says Casey, nine.
Noah, seven, agrees. “It's like a family but better because everyone knows God and has him in their family.”
Casey became a junior soldier in 2013, while Noah is being enrolled this month.
“Casey takes it very seriously,” says Johnstone. “He likes to teach me and his little brother.”
“The thing about being any kind of soldier is that you need to do a certain thing the best that you can in order to do your job,” says Casey. “I like that I have a job to do at church. And it helps me love God and respect myself.”
Noah hopes to follow in his brother's footsteps. “I will do my job by loving God the best I can and making sure other people know I love him by helping them.”
Having the support of the church has been particularly important for Noah, who struggles with ADHD and other developmental difficulties.
“He acts out sometimes, but people have stuck by him so he feels like he's OK, he's accepted,” she says. “He can be loved even though he has these outbursts.”
Casey has also felt like the church is a safe place for him.
“He asks serious questions like 'Is God even real?' ” Johnstone says. “I was able to bring that to my pastor who said he could come to the adult Bible study to see if he could get some answers. Because of that class, Casey has a stronger testimony now.”
Becoming a stronger Christian has also helped Johnstone overcome barriers in her own life.
“I have experienced such an incredible and profound sense of freedom since coming here,” she says. “My whole life, I struggled with crippling anxiety—anxiety that made me stay in my house for two years as an adolescent. I was very sick, but now I can say that I have been completely, miraculously healed.”
Coming to Kelowna Community Church has also given Johnstone the opportunity to take her career in a new direction. After doing childcare at the Breakthrough program for a year, she became the assistant to the program's co-ordinator.
“The co-ordinator went on a medical leave and they asked me to step into his role,” she says. “I did that with lots of support from many people in leadership at The Salvation Army.”
When the co-ordinator decided not to come back, Johnstone assumed the role and has been leading the program for more than a year.
“I was always a manager of some kind, but after having my kids I wasn't sure if I had that in me anymore,” she says. “I thought it might have died and so it took me a while to get back into the swing of things. But people had trust in me. They were saying, 'You can do this' and 'We believe in you.'
“The way that I am valued here as an employee—I see my leaders investing in me,” she continues. “It's great that I am trusted with some of the things that make this church amazing.”
But more than a job, the corps has provided a community of faith, where Johnstone knows she will always be welcome.
“I have friends that I can count on because The Salvation Army has taught me how to trust,” she concludes, “and learning to trust people has changed my life.”
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