Memorable summer: First cadets assigned to Boys & Girls Clubs

By: David Ibata

One of the thrills of a difficult COVID-19 summer for many children in Atlanta, Georgia, was the sight of a big white truck lettered “Salvation Army” rolling into their neighborhood to give away food.

A canteen ministry was among the projects undertaken by Cadets Denzell and Erika McClain while serving at two of the three Salvation Army Boys & Girls Clubs in Atlanta. They were the first cadets to ever be given a summer assignment at the clubs.

“Without the cadets, we wouldn’t have been able to offer a vacation Bible school, a children’s choir and a food campaign with the canteen,” said Joshua Dickerson, executive director of the Army-operated clubs in Atlanta. “It was definitely a unique and awesome experience.”

Cadets McClain, of the Messengers of Grace session at Evangeline Booth College, served at the Bellwood club on Atlanta’s west side; and at the Fuqua club downtown, near The Salvation Army Red Shield Services shelter for homeless families.

“It was a little daunting at first, but it turned out to be a great experience,” Cadet Denzell said.

Cadet Erika agreed, saying, “When we were first assigned, we were a little bit nervous, but Major and Captain Parker explained they put the clubs on the assignments list and actually chose us for the clubs as a test run, to see how things would go.” (Major Bob Parker and Captain Kathy Parker are Atlanta metro area commanders.)

Cadet Denzell grew up in The Salvation Army, initially in Newark, New Jersey, in the Eastern Territory, and later in Marietta, Georgia. Cadet Erika was introduced to The Salvation Army when she began dating her future husband.

They were active with the Marietta Corps, and after the birth of their third child, Cadet Denzell was named youth director at the Fort Walton Beach, Florida, Corps. Two years later, the family returned to Atlanta, became soldiers at the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center and eventually confirmed their call to officership.

Many corps have community centers attached to them, yet training alone may not entirely address how to run a program beyond traditional corps activities, Cadet Erika said. So, the cadets were put in the Boys & Girls Clubs to gain valuable experience.

Their first challenge was trying to reach, with virtual programming, children isolated at home because of the coronavirus. Cadet Erika said, “Of course, you’re battling with toys and games and social media to get kids logged onto Zoom three days a week.”

The cadets organized a virtual children’s choir and an in-person VBS at the Fuqua Club for 15 Red Shield Services youngsters.

“That was to help the children, and also to help the club measure its COVID-19 response to see how they’d reopen during the school year,” Cadet Denzel said. “It was awesome. This was the first time the Boys & Girls Club had a VBS. And it was cool to the staff to see that side of Salvation Army programming.”

With the clubs mostly closed over the summer, many children lacked a reliable source of nutrition. So the cadets borrowed the Red Shield Services canteen once a week during the month of July.

“We had five or six drop-off places where staff knew the children lived,” Cadet Denzel said. “Obviously, we didn’t turn anyone away, so we wound up feeding the whole community – anywhere from 300 to 500 meals served every Tuesday out of the Bellwood and Fuqua clubs. We’d pick up three Bellwood staff members, start driving and serving, and after about two hours we’d drop them off, then go pick up the Fuqua staff members and deliver food another two hours.”

At the clubs, meanwhile, everyone got to learn more about The Salvation Army.

The cadets, Dickerson said, “were able to share their stories and just present themselves as, quote, ‘regular people’ who are on the path to becoming Salvation Army officers. This gave our staff and children an opportunity to understand that officers don’t just sprout up; there’s schooling and training that goes with it. That built a deeper understanding of the Army among us.”

Cadet Denzell said, “We were able to see the Army holistically. We’ve been with the Army a while – I’ve been a youth director, and Erika has been a BFI (Blood and Fire Initiative) – but we’d never seen how a Boys & Girls Club does programming. This added a great deal to our tool belt.”

“I’d absolutely recommend the experience to others … that if you’re involved in any part of the Army, you should volunteer your time at a Salvation Army Boys & Girls Club so children and staff can see Army faces and understand our mission a little better.”