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Mitchell Salvation Army Angel Tree program soldiers on

Gift, food giveaway sees another successful year

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Lacey Neihoff and Paxton Neihoff load the back of a vehicle with gifts at the Salvation Army Angel Tree giveaway Saturday morning at the Salvation Army headquarters. Over 600 families signed up for the program this year, which has been a decades-long tradition in the Mitchell community. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)
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The event had a little different look this year, but the Mitchell Salvation Army Angel Tree project once again delivered a little joy and relief to people in need in the community Saturday.

“We have a great team of volunteers, it’s going smoothly and we have a nice day outside,” said Debbi Middendorp, co-captain of the Mitchell Salvation Army. “We’re trying something new, but it’s working well.”

The small group of volunteers at the Salvation Army headquarters on Sanborn Boulevard were busy pushing shopping cars between the chapel and parking lot, where folks in need were waiting to pick up packages of Christmas gifts and food donated through the organization’s Angel Tree program. It’s a decades-long tradition that usually sees families come into the building to pick up items while mingling with volunteers and other patrons, but the reality of COVID-19 changed the procedure this year.

It is a reality Debbi Middendorp and her husband, Bill, the other co-captain of the Mitchell Salvation Army, have come to accept as the demand for the services provided by the Salvation Army has increased while the number of volunteers, in the short term at least, has decreased, with some volunteers who are older and more vulnerable to a disease like COVID-19 have opted to avoid crowds.

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Some other groups have stepped up to help fill that void, however.

“Some of our veteran volunteers are not able to help out this year, so a lot of new groups have come in. The Mitchell Hockey Association has helped, and Mitchell Christian School has sent over their older grades. Klock Werks sent their whole staff, and they worked hard,” Bill Middendorp said.

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Stacey Heesch prepares to load a vehicle with gifts during the Salvation Army Angel Tree giveaway program Saturday morning at Salvation Army headquarters. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

Saturday morning saw the Mitchell Hockey Association assisting with the loading of carts and cars. The Middendorps said they are generally limiting the number of volunteers inside the building to 10, which makes it easier to social distance and allows for more freedom of movement, it does take away from the traditional festive atmosphere the event usually inspires, especially with receiving families not able to mingle amongst the volunteers and each other.

But even with the chapel relatively empty, the cars continued to arrive. Deb Middendorp said the organization had just over 600 families take part in the Angel Tree program this year. Six Angel Tree locations are spread out around the community, and families sign up for the program by giving the Salvation Army a profile of their family - family size, age and number of children and their gift requests or interests. The requests are placed anonymously on the Angel Trees and donors select the requests off the tree, sending the items to the Salvation Army.

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The chapel at the Salvation Army headquarters in Mitchell was loaded with bags of gifts for those in need Saturday morning. The items were being given out as part of the annual Angel Tree program. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

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The Salvation Army then organizes the donations and sends out a postcard to the family in question, who then show up at the giveaway to pick up their pre-packaged bundles.

The chapel at Salvation Army headquarters was packed with green and red bags filled with various toys and other treats, which volunteers loaded into shopping carts and headed for door and parking lot. A handful of new bicycles were on hand for a lucky few children who would likely find them under the tree come Christmas morning.

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Todd Kludt, a Salvation Army volunteer with the Mitchell Hockey Association, loads gifts into a shopping cart manned by Carrie Mitchell, another volunteer. Due to COVID-19, only working volunteers were allowed inside the Salvation Army building during the annual Angel Tree giveaway Saturday morning. Gifts were loaded into carts in the chapel and then moved out to the parking lot, where they were loaded into waiting cars. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

If a card goes unselected off the Angel Tree, the Salvation Army will purchase the gift items themselves using donated funds, so no Christmas request goes unanswered.

Along with volunteers who have stepped up to fill the gap, donations this Christmas season have been up substantially. Many people are choosing not to travel for the holidays, or to not host large gatherings in their homes, so budgets are less strained by holiday travel or food costs. That allows them to give a little extra to people who may be looking for a little help this year.

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Salvation Army volunteer Carrie Mitchell pushes a cart of gifts out of the chapel toward the parking lot during the annual Angel Tree giveaway program Saturday. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

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“We have families who say they’re not getting together this year, and with the money we’re saving we’re going to give toward blessing another family,” Bill Middendorp said. “We’ve heard that multiple times.”

And it’s not just gifts that are heading out the door. Over 200 families signed up for the free food box program, which offers a box of food for those who may have trouble putting a holiday meal on the table. In true holiday fashion, the food box this year includes favorites such as stuffing, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, Jello, pudding, brownie mix, spaghetti, fruits, vegetables and hot cocoa.

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Mitchell Salvation Army co-captain Debbi Middendorp speaks with volunteers during the annual Angel Tree giveaway at Salvation Army headquarters Saturday morning. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

The boxes also contain some meat items, such as turkeys, ham and ground beef, depending on the size of the family.

The food is generally donated by churches and schools, which hold drives to help round out the menu. One school, for example, held a marshmallow drive for the food boxes. The groups take pride in being able to make the Christmas season a little brighter for some folks.

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Volunteers were on hand Saturday morning to see to it that donated gifts were distributed to those in need during the annual Salvation Army Angel Tree giveaway at Salvation Army headquarters in Mitchell. (Erik Kaufman / Republic)

“One little girl and her family came in to fill boxes, and she said, 'My class donated the most marshmallows; are these them?' " Deb Middendorp said.

Christmas is the time of year when the work of the Salvation Army is most visible, but it is always seeking to help those in need at any time of year. In the case of 2020, with the economy heavily hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, people are struggling to pay for things like heat and a place to stay. The Salvation Army does what it can to help remedy that, and encourages those who would like to help to inquire about monetary donations to the organization.

“The need for rental and utility assistance has skyrocketed,” Debbi Middendorp said.

Bill Middendorp also said that the work being done during the Christmas season is also a chance to stockpile inventory and practice for another important Salvation Army mission — assisting during natural disasters.

“We like to tell people when they come to pack boxes, we do this to bless people for Christmas, but it’s also preparation for disasters,” Middendorp said.

Debbi Middendorp said there have been other holiday projects the organization has undertaken this year. In lieu of being able to visit nursing home and assisted care residents, the group distributed fleece blankets to nursing home residents in Mitchell, and a packet of games such as word searches and crossword puzzles were given out to assisted living center residents.

It’s an inferior substitute for being able to visit with them in person, but the group tries to find what it can do instead of dwelling on what it can’t.

“I’m missing the nursing home residents. We bring them a gift every year, and I like to hold their hand and give them a hug,” Debbi Middendorp said.

Still, the spirit of the Salvation Army mission was in clear view Saturday morning, as cars pulled up on a chilly morning as volunteers met them outside, disappeared inside for a few minutes, before loading the back of the vehicle with gifts and food. Friendly, grateful chatter drifted through the cold air, as did wishes for a “Merry Christmas!”

And it all came together with the help of a few volunteers, some organizational work and a generous Mitchell community.

“The slogan the Salvation Army coined this year is Rescue Christmas,” Debbi Middendorp said. “This year has been overwhelming how people are seeing the need and helping bless a family or child.”

More information on the Mitchell Salvation Army can be found at centralusa.salvationarmy.org/mitchell/who-we-are/ or by calling 605-996-3964.

Related Topics: NONPROFITS
Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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