Salvation Army Maj. Gary Elliott was at a retreat with 125 other officers from across the state last week when he heard about the $1.5-billion donation left to the army. Each started fantasizing about the possibilities.
"I told our state commander, jokingly, we're sitting there listening about this gift and we've all spent it twice," said Elliott, who runs the St. Petersburg Area Command of the Salvation Army, which covers the area south of Ulmerton Road.
Elliott and other army leaders across the country were thinking about portions of the money donated by the late Joan Kroc, heir to the McDonald's fortune. The catch? Kroc set up the donation with very specific requirements that the money be used to build and maintain community centers based on the model of the Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in San Diego.
"It's about everything that every army in the country is doing right now," Elliott said. "Do we have anything that will meet her restrictions?"
The only southern Pinellas County facility that would meet Kroc's requirements is the Pinellas Park Citadel and Community Center, which has endured cutbacks since the economic downturn, Elliott said. But it's still too early to see if any of Florida's cut of the Kroc money, which should amount to about $50-million, will go to Pinellas Park, Elliott added.
In any case, the donation has piqued public curiosity about the Salvation Army, an organization best known for bell-ringing and holiday meals. The army provides a myriad of services catering to the specific needs of southern Pinellas, ranging from children's programs to church services to probation supervision.
"When I speak to folks about the army, they're largely unaware of the breadth and scope of what the army does here in Pinellas County," said Peter Rood, director of development for the St. Petersburg Area office.
"The programs that we have here in South Pinellas County differ from even the ones in Clearwater. We've tried to respond to what the community's needs are."
In St. Petersburg, the first place to stop to meet those needs is the Social Service center at 1400 Fourth St. S. People can drop in for food, financial assistance, emergency shelter or referrals to other Salvation Army services.
Also on the premises, the army runs a Faith Based Transitional Housing program, which helps ex-prisoners with the transition back into society.
Andrew Loiacono, 42, has been in and out of prison while struggling with his alcohol dependency and bipolar disorder. Today, Loiacono is sober and trying to enroll in school for business managetment. He credits the Transitional Housing program, which he has been in for five months, with turning his life around.
"It keeps people from going back to jail," said Loiacono, who served three years for burglary. "I consider this my second family. They're all out there to help."
Prisoners can opt to join the program, which lasts up to a year and provides them with clothing, meals and job preparedness training in a faith-based manner. Loiacono said it helped him to become a more caring citizen.
"I couldn't care if you died on the sidewalk, I would walk right over you," he said. "Today, I would help you."
Many social services, especially children's care, also take place off the premises of the Fourth Street Social Services center.
The Salvation Army aims to care for children at all levels of family trouble. Family specialists make in-home visits to dysfunctional families in an attempt to keep children in the home. In cases of abuse, children can be shepherded off to the Sallie House, a shelter for kids up to 11 years old.
The army also pioneered an innovative foster care program at Children's Village, four homes near Ninth Avenue N and 39th Street, where hard-to-adopt children can stay with their siblings in large foster families.
"The change in these kids has simply been remarkable," Rood said. "Giving them the love, care and stability of being in a home and being with their brothers and sisters has really helped bring them out of the doldrums that traditional foster care tends to give them."
The army's work is rooted in Christianity. Army officers are also ordained as pastors in the Salvationist church, an offshoot of United Methodism.
Major Elliott also delivers sermons Sunday to 170 churchgoers at the St. Petersburg Citadel and Community Center, 3800 Ninth Ave. N. More services are run out of the church, which organizes programs for the elderly, Sunday School for children and the well-known Salvation Army brass band.
"Our founders believed that the Christian message was important but people weren't open to hearing it until their basic needs were met," Elliott said of the organization, which was founded in 1865 by William Booth, a Methodist minister in London, and came to St. Petersburg in 1912. "The movement grew out of an effort to work on behalf of that group that really couldn't help itself."
Today, despite cuts in the St. Petersburg area's nearly $5-million budget, the group is optimistic that it will be able to expand its services once more.
"We're running in the black, but we're not yet poised to expand into areas where we already were," Elliott said. "We've suffered a lot, and when we suffer, the client suffers."
How the Army is deployed in south Pinellas County
In south Pinellas, the Salvation Army does more than ring bells. Here are the sites of its main centers of activity.
1. Social Services Center and Emergency Shelter
2. Salvation Army Store
3. Salvation Army Store
4. St. Petersburg Citadel and Community Center
5. Pinellas Park Citadel and Community Center
6. St. Petersburg Area Command Administrative Offices
7. Adult Rehabilitation Center
8. Correctional Services Offices
9. Children's Village