OTTUMWA — The Salvation Army's newest captain wants to give those in need the tools necessary to make lasting changes in their lives.
Capt. Ruth Gibbons began at the Salvation Army last week after moving from Cloquet, Minn.
"As an officer, you know you're going to move when they feel you should or when the Lord leads you to," she said.
Capts. Oliver and Tabitha Knuth were recently appointed to lead the Salvation Army in Boone. Ironically, Gibbons lived right next door to the Knuths while all three were attending the Salvation Army College for Officer Training in Chicago.
"I feel that's what the Lord was calling me to do," she said of her decision to go to officer training. "I come from a family of Salvationists, so I've always known the Salvation Army. But later in life, the Lord said this is how He wants me to serve."
The Salvation Army tries to provide whatever its community needs, she said, whether that's a church, a feeding program, a thrift store or any other social service, "keeping that spiritual component in the practical things we do." One unit may have a thrift store, church and feeding program, whereas another community's Salvation Army may be more congregational.
The goal, though, is not to duplicate services already in the community.
"Are we a social service or are we a church? The answer to that is, 'Yes,'" she said. "But if you don't have the Lord on your side, you'll burn right out. There's so much need in the world, and we're trying to provide those services. We're trying to stretch our dollars over a period to make sure we're helping everyone we can. We want to help everyone."
But helping means getting people back into "self-sustaining mode," she said, not reinforcing a system that makes people feel like they're stuck in a rut they cannot climb out of.
"We talk about giving them 'a hand up, not a handout,'" she said.
Ottumwa's Salvation Army's main focuses are its Meals on Wheels and summer feeding programs.
"I would like there to be more programs to help people with the challenges they have now," she said. "Since the economy is so hard ... something like budgeting classes, cooking classes. We need to help them sustain their lives longer."
Gibbons said she's learned that those struggling today are the "nouveau poor."
"They're the people who never expected to be poor," she said. "They're spending their retirement years taking part-time jobs to make ends meet. They thought what they had saved up was enough — and it's not. How do we help them get through those times? A lot of those people may feel like they've failed themselves, but they haven't. We need to help give them back control of their own lives and not just be a provider of services."
She said the Salvation Army needs to be one voice in helping to halt the sometimes never-ending cycle of a population dependent on government assistance.
"I don't have the answers for that, but we can help people one at a time and make them feel empowered," she said.
Gibbons said she's happy to be in Ottumwa and believes there are forward-thinking people in the community who will help further the Salvation Army's mission, as will her advisory board.
"I'm not here alone," she said. "I've got a good support system."
— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.