Doing The Most Good With Melanie Cook

We can all do the most good in our everyday lives, whether it be helping an older neighbor with their yard work, recycling, or paying for coffee for the next person in line. There’s always a way to show God’s grace through your day-to-day deeds, but for some, doing the most good is their calling.

“It wasn’t my idea. It was His. The Lord has led me here,” is Melanie Cook’s response to dedicating so much of her time and energy to helping those in need.

Cook is a fulltime volunteer at The Salvation Army in Florence, Alabama, where she organizes the food pantry, cooks, and serves meals to residents. She’s also responsible for bringing in her fellow members of Highland Baptist Church to join in volunteer efforts at The Salvation Army.

The Lord Spoke To Me

Cook says the Lord spoke to her about being more involved in charity work through her Bible readings. She wasn’t sure how to get started and began working with a local ministry that prepared weekly meals for the homeless. She met a couple in that ministry who introduced her to The Salvation Army. Cook saw how in need the shelter was and recruited other members from her church to assist. Word spread, and volunteering at The Salvation Army is now a church-wide service at Highland Baptist Church.

When asked to share her experience working with Cook, Christine Onocki, The Salvation Army Florence Corps Volunteer Coordinator, said, “My words are not adequate to express the gratitude in my heart for Melanie’s volunteer participation with us. She has such a beautiful spirit. She recognizes a need and jumps into action, organizing groups to fill the need or fill in the gaps. We are blessed to have her and her fellow church members. The phrase “With a heart for God and a hand to man” would describe this wonderful woman. We are very thankful.”

Fulfilling A Calling

Among all the other good they do, Cook’s ministry took it upon themselves to assist when the shelter was in desperate need of new bedding. The shelter received a large donation of bedspreads from one of the local hotels. Though the offer was generous and appreciated, most of the comforters were queen and king-sized, much too large for the twin-sized beds that most shelters provide. Shelters wash their bedding frequently, and the large size of the donated bedding would cause wear and tear on the machines, so Cook and three other women from her church decided to use their sewing skills to cut and hem the material, making two covers out of one. This act was much appreciated and helped make the bedding supplies at the shelter more efficient and easier to handle for both staff and residents.

In addition to loving what she does, Cook enjoys interacting with the people she serves. To Cook, volunteering isn’t just about the service provided. It’s also about making personal connections and showing people who may not currently have a source of companionship that there are people who care about them. She has found that volunteering sometimes works as a personal kind of witnessing ministry. People share their feelings and thoughts with her, which allows her to share their stories and assist others with making much needed societal changes.

“I don’t know if volunteers from my church have the same calling, but knowing the Lord gave me this duty leaves me with a strong sense of satisfaction each day,” Cook declared. “It’s a blessing to be able to talk to people and let them know that I’m just like them. We have different problems, but we all have problems. I can share with them how the Lord has worked in my life and encourage them that He can do the same for them. I remind them that this is just a temporary situation and that He’s there for them,” Cook added.

Volunteering Will Change Your Perspective

People have approached Cook on the street, asking for food and money. She informs them that they never have to go hungry because The Salvation Army serves meals every day. She also wants people in shelters to know that she doesn’t feel like they are different from her. She wants to offer encouragement about God and overcoming hardships, so she often sits and prays with people concerning finding a job, a place to live, and reuniting with their families.

“Homelessness has separated so many families. We don’t always get a happy ending with those, but sometimes we do. I try to share those happy endings with my Sunday school class. You know, ‘So-and-so moved out of The Salvation Army and into their apartment this week.’ or “So-and-so whose child was taken away by DHR is getting their baby back.’ The Salvation Army has played such a massive part in people’s lives,” Cook said.

Cook would like to see more people get involved. She often encounters lonely people at the shelter who feel that their lives have little meaning. She believes that if more people would share their time by volunteering at The Salvation Army, their perspectives on life will change, and they’ll realize they are more abundant and more blessed than they think.

Cook emphasizes the importance of sharing your time with others by adding, “Volunteering and witnessing these miracles has given me a boldness to share my faith. God is so good to us, and there’s a lot that we can do to change the world. One person at a time. Volunteer.”

Contact your local Salvation Army to learn how you can contribute.

Elvis Mujic, The Traveling Stand-Up Comedian Who Loves Performing at Shelters

Traditionally, homeless shelters serve as temporary residences for individuals and families. They exist to provide residents with safety and protection from the harsh conditions of living outdoors. Now, thanks to Elvis Mujic, a 30-year-old, stand-up comedian, people view shelters as a place to laugh and converse with their local community. While shelters aren’t commonplace for stand-up sets, Mujic says he finds joy performing in untraditional settings.

Mujic speaking at The Salvation Army Rehabilitation Program in Sarasota, FL

“Entertaining feels a bit selfish to me, possibly because it’s standing in front of a crowd to hold their attention. However, this [performing at shelters and collecting goods for the underprivileged] feels a lot better,” Mujic said.

Mujic contributes more than just comedic relief during his performances. Sometimes things don’t go as planned and shows can serve as an outlet for those in the audience who want to share their stories and perspectives.

“I performed at The Salvation Army chapel in Jackson, MS a few weeks ago. I do my best to plan out a show, but sometimes things happen that I can’t control, and sometimes it turns into a speaking event or a debate. I have experience living in a van. Not necessarily living in poverty, but I’ve faced inconveniences, so I can relate to some of the issues that people in shelters face. I created a moment to be encouraging to the residents and we ended up discussing whether they can get past their hardship. It was great and everyone was friendly after the show,” Mujic said. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell if people are enjoying themselves because it’s not your average comedy show and you’re in an area where there are lots of distractions and interruptions. For example, sometimes people will poke in their head and say, ‘Okay, hey it’s time to eat,’ or phones will ring and I’ll have to answer them and deliver a message,” he added.

Mujic was born in Bosnia, then known as Yugoslavia. His parents decided to give him a western name so that he would not have an Islamic name during a time of Islamic religious intolerance in Yugoslavia. His family moved to the United States when Mujic was seven years old and settled in Detroit, Michigan. He briefly studied philosophy at Amherst College in Massachusetts but left to pursue a career in comedy once he discovered joy in lifting others’ spirits. He lived in a minivan between 2013 and 2016 and traveled to 47 states, practicing his brand of guerrilla comedy.

“I don’t know what made me go into comedy, but I tried it, and I loved it. It felt natural. I performed at one shelter in Mississippi years ago, to try something different, and I always remembered how it felt. I thought to myself, ‘Well, who knows what life will bring? I have the chance to do this now, and I want to make sure that I can say that I’ve done something positive with stand-up comedy,'” Mujic said.

The first shelter Mujic performed in was in 2015 at The Salvation Army’s Tupelo, Mississippi location. While performing at a venue in Memphis, Mujic decided to visit Graceland, a suggestion from his father who is a devoted Elvis Presley fan. There were severe tornado warnings during his visit, so Mujic headed south and took shelter at The Salvation Army’s Tupelo, Mississippi location. He decided to do a set while waiting for the warning to end and found that he enjoyed performing for the people at the shelter.

“I was purposefully performing in places where you wouldn’t have stand-up comedy, and that was interesting for a while. I would go to Waffle House or Denny’s or other bizarre venues to perform. And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m taking cover at a shelter during a tornado warning. This will be interesting.’ Doing these things that I found weird had a pretty profound effect on me,” Mujic said.

“I didn’t begin regularly performing in shelters until a few years later, but I’ve always vividly remembered that performance. It’s still my favorite set,” Mujic added.

One of Mujic’s Donation Bins, including quotes residents of shelters he’s visited.

Mujic has reached over 80 shelters since December 2018 and is currently touring the Southeastern United States, visiting as many facilities as he can fit into his schedule. He just wrapped up his performances in Louisiana and Mississippi and is currently in Alabama. He likes to focus his travels to low-income areas, where he performs at the local shelters first and later performs at a local venue. He often hosts “socks and undies shows,” where people may bring socks, underwear, and personal hygiene products as admission to the show. Mujic also puts donation bins throughout the town at various businesses.

“The bins are cool. They have my logos on them, but intertwined are messages from different people I’ve met at shelters and soup kitchens after the shows,” Mujic explained.

Mujic takes about 2-3 weeks in each area, getting to know homeless individuals. He collects the items from his donation bins and delivers them to the people that he’s met along the way. He delivers items directly to The Salvation Army and other shelters if he’s received a lot of donations.

“I’d love for my shows to be open to the community. My goal is to eventually get people who are not homeless to come to the shelter. I want to mix people who aren’t homeless and people who are homeless because it’s two different worlds that rarely interact. My goal is to try to mix everyone, erase any stigmas, and show that we’re all people,” Mujic added.

You can learn more about Mujic on his website, ElvisComedy.com

 

A Grand Opening

On a warm October day, dozens of people including the local press and community leaders came out to see the ribbon cutting on a new building at The Salvation Army of Tupelo, Mississippi. It was a building years in the making, and a project that was funded by the generous donations of the community. The Jim Ingram Lodge Red Shield Lodge is a place that can help bring hope to those in need.
It was a facility named after the late Jim Ingram who was a supporter of The Salvation Army in Tupelo. His children were there to help cut the ribbon on the facility and to speak to those in attendance about the work their father did to help. “He saw the Salvation Army feeding people; he saw the Salvation Army clothing people; he saw the Salvation Army giving people shelter,” said his son Jim Ingram Jr. That legacy is what helped inspire the project that included the new shelter and a renovation of the community center.
This new shelter extends The Salvation Army’s ability to serve those in need by expanding to accommodate 50 people. This new building features space for families, who before had to live in separate quarters. The facility is a place where those who have nowhere else to go can find a clean place to stay, a shower, and a warm meal in the newly expanded Soup Kitchen. The event included a tour of the new facility to share the work that The Salvation Army continues to accoplish in Tupelo.

A Veteran Finds a New Home With The Salvation Army

Glynn Smith entered the Army out of high school. The Meridian, Mississippi native got out of the service in 2000, but found himself without a place to stay. For a time, he was living in an abandoned house without any way to seek out a better life. But on August 16th of this year, The Salvation Army of Meridian reopened their men’s shelter, giving men like Glynn Smith a safe, clean place to stay. It also gave him a chance to find a better life.

“If it weren’t for The Salvation Army, I would still be living on the street,” says Smith. But when he came to stay at the shelter, Smith found the opportunity to get into a place of his own. “When he came here, we have beds set aside for veterans, so we allowed him to stay in one of those beds,” says Lt. Tamara Robb of The Salvation Army of Meridian. “When the men stay in our shelter, they have a meeting with our case manager, Stacy Brown, so she knew he had applied for housing. But she was able to help show them he was a veteran, and he was able to get a place to stay within a week of being here,” Lt. Robb says.

Smith was able to afford his new place, and to maintain a budget that Brown helped him create, using his veterans’ benefits. It was one of the ways that The Salvation Army can help those in need find a path away from chronic homelessness. That commitment to veterans, who make up 8% of the homeless population in the United States, is a vital part of The Salvation Army mission.

Today he is thankful for his new place and has made a commitment to give back to the people who have helped him find stability in his life again. When he was staying in the shelter, Smith was known to help out wherever he could. Residents in the shelter have responsibilities as a part of their community, but Smith’s efforts exceeded that routine. “I told her, anything you need me to do around here I’ll do,” Smith says. It was a demonstration of his desire to take care of the place where he was staying, and his continued desire to stay involved with The Salvation Army.

Reconstructing A Life

When Mark Myer came to The Salvation Army shelter in Laurel, Mississippi he could barely walk, and he had no idea how long it would take to recover. He had been working as a cashier at a gas station, but an unexpected injury set him on a difficult path. “I had a hip injury during an altercation defending my sister, and lost my job,” says Mark. Unable to work, and without any other means of support, he soon lost his home and found himself dealing with a physical as well as an emotional recovery.

After getting treatment for depression, but still struggling to walk after his injury, Mark found himself at The Salvation Army shelter. It was a time where he began working on his physical recovery, slowly walking more while looking for a way to return to work. Eventually he found a job working at a local restaurant. “I saved my money and found my own place to live through a housing program (The Salvation Army) helped me find,” he says.

Now that he has found a new job and a new place to stay, Mark has already begun planning for the future. “I’m saving a little bit more money, hopefully get a little better job and eventually get to a place where I am doing a little better than I was before. I’m already saving up to get a car, and that will help me out a lot,” says Mark.

It is a process that he believes will take some time. But he has found himself becoming more a part of the community as a result of what he has experienced through The Salvation Army. “What was most impressive to me is that there are people interested in helping other people reconstruct their lives,” Mark says. “You see people come through here for different reasons. It inspired me to continue to work to see how I can continue to be a part of this program and help others in this community the way they helped me,” he says.

Mark says that he has found a lot of help through the spiritual message of The Salvation Army and their mission to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination. “I started going to Bible meetings while I was staying in the shelter, and I’ve been going to church here on Sunday’s,” Mark says. That mission is to reach out and help people up who are hurting is why he now feels so connected to the community he found through The Salvation Army. “I’ve seen people who were former users, people who didn’t look so good just a few months ago, but to look at them now those live have changed. That’s the most Godly thing I’ve seen in all my 52 years,” says Mark.

The Salvation Army in Laurel offers shelter to men, women, and to families. People in need, whose path into homelessness may have been very different, are all struggling to rebuild their lives. Through The Salvation Army they can find a place to stay, a clean bed, and a warm meal. But that is just the beginning of the opportunities for those who have found themselves with nowhere else to go. Homelessness is sometimes just one paycheck away, and for men like Mark or for anyone trying to reconstruct themselves, The Salvation Army can be a place where that change begins.

A Donation of Transportation

When The Salvation Army goes to meet the needs of the community, it is always with the help and support of community contributions. Donations of funds or food or volunteer hours help The Salvation Army continue “Doing The Most Good” around the world. Recently, as Hurricane Dorian was moving closer to the coast, it was a donation of transportation that helped move water and supplies to those in need.

“We try to do things the right way. Our company began in March of 1990, and since then we have been successful, so we think it’s important to give back,” says John Stomps, the President and CEO of Total Transportation of Mississippi. When The Salvation Army asked for his support, he sent a truck to help transport needed supplies. He describes it as part of a culture of giving back to the community. “What we do, we do it because we can. When people are in need, if you have the ability, should step up,” he says.

This was not the first time The Salvation Army has called John for help. He has used his company to help serve the community in a myriad of ways, from transporting water and supplies to disaster survivors to helping in the fight against human trafficking, ensuring that his drivers are trained to recognize and report instances of human trafficking. His relationship with The Salvation Army began in the way many people come to learn about The Salvation Army, helping to share toys and gifts for the Angel Tree. “It began with us hauling toys around Christmas time. And then about four years ago I got a call from The Salvation Army asking for some assistance with a hurricane, where we hauled a mobile feeding unit down to Florida,” says Stomps.

Transporting over long distances is a costly endeavor. Fuel, drivers, and other expenses can add up over long distances. This is simply a part of the industry of transportation that touches nearly every product Americans buy. During times of disaster, those same costs are a significant part of any public or private organization’s response efforts. For The Salvation Army, on-call for whatever local and regional needs may arise, those costs are a substantial component of operational planning. John Stomps and Total Transportation of Mississippi’s partnership with The Salvation Army, by repeatedly and generously offering free transport of needed supplies for disaster relief efforts, is of immense value.

The Salvation Army’s mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination. Helping meet the needs of communities facing recovery from disasters is a core part of that mission. It is a mission that can continue thanks to the support of individual donors, local businesses, and community leaders like John Stomps who are “Doing The Most Good” for their neighbors in need.

Finding a Home With The Salvation Army

LaCreata Scott came to The Salvation Army shelter in Shreveport, Louisiana for much the same reason that most people in need look for help. She had nowhere else to go. With three daughters, and without a place of her own, her options were limited. “I was a resident in the shelter for about two weeks with my children. They were able to stay in the day care as well,” says LaCreata, “I felt like this was a safe place,” she says. It was a chance for her to breathe. It was a chance for her to try and make a better life for her family.

For LaCreata and for all of those families that find themselves without a place to live, The Salvation Army is not simply a place to stay. It is a place where they can find opportunities to change their life and that of their family. Last year The Salvation Army of Shreveport provided nearly 7,000 nights of shelter to families and individuals in need. In that same time, over 3,000 found assistance with basic social services.

LaCreata has been in her own home since 2006. But her experience with The Salvation Army led her to want to serve others. “Whenever they call me, I am there to help,” LaCreata says.  She has helped served meals to other people in her own neighborhood. And she eventually joined the church, becoming a solider in The Salvation Army. “I feel like they just took me in. I feel like this was another home for me,” she says.

 

Finding Opportunities With The Boys and Girls Club

Cara O’Kray is playing basketball with some of the younger children at The Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club of Shreveport, Louisiana. They are each taking shots for themselves, missing some and making others. It’s a way to learn and grow together. Cara is helping to work with the younger kids. It is a leadership role, but also an opportunity to help draw out some of those kids that are uncomfortable in new surroundings.

Cara’s service to others includes being a part of the community within the Boys and Girls Club. Aside from working at the front desk, “I help to prepare meals and I help collect the little kids,” Cara says. It’s an effort that is only a part of the time she has spent serving the community with The Boys and Girls Club. “I volunteered over the holidays at The Salvation Army by helping serve food to the homeless, army veterans, and families. Only good things come from this lifestyle. The Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club encourages academic excellence,” she says.

“Last summer when I first started volunteering here, I noticed that some kids were kind of in their shell. But as the summer went on, they become more open with the kids around them and with me too,” says Cara. Learning how to work with younger people has helped her on her journey. “I’d like to give those kids a voice. To help guide kids who don’t feel comfortable discussing their problems,” she says. A high school psychology course led to an interest in serving others’ emotional well-being. Following that interest will lead to attending LSU after graduating from high school, seeking a degree in Psychology so that she can help other children like those she has been working with at The Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club. “I want to give those kids a voice. Those who are scared to come out about problems that they are going through,” says Cara

The Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club offers an opportunity for young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens. For some kids it is a place of learning and personal development. For others the Boys and Girls Club can open a window into opportunities that they may not have considered. For Cara O’Kray it has become a place where she found a new perspective on her future.