Salvation Army dishes out bounty of hope

Volunteer, Blazers' 'voice' share their stories at luncheon

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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photoFormer Portland Trail Blazer Jerome Kersey and radio announcer Brian Wheeler greet each other at The Salvation Army 2013 Annual Clark County Community Luncheon on Wednesday.

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Radio broadcaster Brian Wheeler, the play-by-play "Voice of the Trail Blazers," shared a remarkably frank story about the hunt for his birth family. And he called his friend Jerome Kersey "the most photographed man in Vancouver today" as the former Trail Blazer star shook many hands and smiled for many cameras.

But the Clark County Salvation Army's annual community luncheon stage was stolen Wednesday by single mom Jackie Varner Hilby, who spilled copious tears and heartfelt thank-yous as she described the way she was rescued — repeatedly — by the Christian charity.

Unemployment and hunger struck her young family while utility bills and rent debt all piled up, she said. The Salvation Army helped the family climb out of that crisis with food and cash assistance, and encouraged Hilby to sign up for a Christmas basket so the family need not go without holiday cheer.

"I was treated with kindness and compassion," she told the group that assembled at the Heathman Lodge. But then major tragedy struck: her newborn daughter succumbed to sudden infant death syndrome. It rocked her world, she said, and she blamed everyone — including God.

"I walked away from the Salvation Army," she said. But the charity never abandoned her. Her marriage over and her finances in tatters, she said, it was the Salvation Army that kept pulling the family back from the brink. Even after she gave up on Sunday morning Salvation Army church services, her children kept going. Eventually Hilby returned to the fold: she and her mother went to a women's support group where she found she "adored the fellowship with other ladies." When her mother fell ill, she said, and that income disappeared, the Salvation Army helped stave off post-eviction homelessness by partially financing a short-term hotel stay.

Life has vastly improved since then, she said, and eventually she became a super-motivated volunteer and official Salvation Army member in 2009; putting on the traditional uniform "was one of the happiest days of my life. It made me so happy to be able to help."

"We have a real home" in the Salvation Army, she said. "I feel I have found my place in society."

Help on the way

Steve Rusk, the business administrator for the Salvation Army Clark County, said his agency is focused on transforming "takers" into "givers."

A few years ago, he said, the agency worked with a little less than $200,000 to keep 210 families in their homes. The Great Recession resulted in a drop in support from private donations to government grants, he said, but there's also light at the end of the tunnel: with more help now on the way, Rusk said the agency is figuring on expanding its support to more than 300 families in the coming year.

Key to making that happen were silent and live auctions during the event as well as some large donations that were made in advance -- especially a $10,000 pledge from noted local philanthropist Steve Oliva. Later in the day, Rusk reported that the event raised more than $20,000.

There was also a $933 donation (the amount needed to buy three months of stability for a family in crisis, Rusk said) from Charles "Bud" Gallup — who was honored as a 46-year adviser to the local Salvation Army. That's the longest tenure ever, Rusk said.

But Rusk pointed out that the Salvation Army endeavors to provide more than emergency aid to stave off disaster. It works long-term with its clients to provide stability and skills "to live with dignity and independence."

Beth Kennard, who directs the Salvation Army's social service programs, said the agency is looking to devote more resources to children who need extra support to succeed in school. Rusk said the agency has started up its own small after-school program — with a focus on tutoring and homework help — at its headquarters on Northeast 112th Avenue for kids at nearby Marrion Elementary School.

Finding family

If Hilby's story of poverty and rescue was a tearjerker, Brian Wheeler's was surprising and sobering.

"Voice of the Trail Blazers" Wheeler, born and adopted in Chicago, grew up in Los Angeles but reluctantly returned to Chicago at 14 when his widowed mother married her brother-in-law. The large, blended family was never a happy one, Wheeler said, because his new stepfather was "an Archie Bunker type who thought that nothing good happened after 1920."

Things went from bad to worse after Wheeler's mother died. The stepfather was a hostile alcoholic who called Wheeler "a trespasser" and eventually willed him only $5 — because that was the least amount that could be given and avoid having the will contested.

"All the way to the grave he was a bitter, bitter guy," Wheeler said — adding that he feels lucky not to have "fallen prey to the same problems."

Here's the twist: When he turned 50 last year, Wheeler decided to go looking for his birth mother. She was 17 when he was born. By coincidence, his birth state, Illinois, had just passed an open adoption law — so the original birth certificate he eventually received included his birth mother's name. Eventually Wheeler located her and made a nervous phone call.

A man answered the phone. Wheeler managed to get past him, and spoke to his birth mother for the first time ever. What he learned astonished him doubly: that man was Wheeler's father, and the couple would soon celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. While they'd been young and pressured to give Wheeler up for adoption 50 years ago, he learned, they'd gone on to have a happy life and family together. His mother had tried to track him down since then, he said, but without a name or other information to go on, it seemed impossible.

To find not only his birth mother but his father too is "proof to me that you can never be too old for excitement, surprise, mystery," he said. What it all means: "Treasure family, friends, the good people in your life."


Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://www.twitter.com/col_nonprofits;scott.hewitt@columbian.com