Ministry Beyond Disaster: New VRU Provides Community Opportunities

By: Michelle Hartfield

Laura Stempien is the office manager for The Salvation Army’s Fredericksburg Corps in Virginia. Like many Salvation Army units, the Fredericksburg Corps maintained a large canteen with a full kitchen. As the canteen was older, and the corps used it regularly during blue sky periods and not just disaster response, they began to run into issues with repair costs and broken-down units.

When the emergency disaster services director for the Potomac Division recommended the corps try a new van response unit (VRU) that had just been approved for use, Stempien was able to travel to Indiana to pick up their new unit and drive it back to Virginia in April 2023.

With this new, more mobile unit, Stempien and her team have found that they are using it multiple times a week. The most significant way they’ve been able to use the VRU is as a mobile pantry. The Fredericksburg Corps serves five counties, and one of these counties had zero food resources available before this program.

“Residents in the cities and more populated areas have access to many resources for food,” Stempien said. “But the rural locations in many of our counties do not have anything, especially not something that provides fresh produce.”

The corps has teamed up with a local food bank that previously could only provide shelf-stable foods and dry goods. The van unit follows their routes and delivers fresh produce and perishable goods to clients.

“With the van unit, we are able to expand our coverage area,” Stempien added. They have even been able to start food service in very rural areas technically outside of their service area.

In addition to the mobile food pantry, the Fredericksburg Corps uses their VRU for “open air” events with their youth, playing live music and providing resources at parks in lower income areas.

“A key focus for our team this year has been to expand engagement with the wider community, and to share the Army’s mission with those we’ve not reached yet,” said Captain Kelsey Bridges, corps officer. “The new vehicle gives us the agility to do this effectively and provides endless opportunities to be creative with our outreach.”

“Since receiving the canteen in April, the beautiful red shield has been in the community 1-2 times per week meeting needs and delivering hope,” Captain Bridges continued. “With the exposure we have been able to generate with this vehicle, our youth music programs have gone from 15 to 50 children in attendance this fall, and new families are starting to join our Sunday worship.”

The van will also be a valuable resource to allow them to pick up toys during Angel Tree donation season.

“If there is something we can use it for, we’re going to use it,” Stempien said. “Any time there is a local event, we want to have it out there. It’s such a resource. We would not have been able to do the mobile pantry with the old units.”

“The VRU’s impact has been so much broader than a cup of coffee,” said Captain Bridges. “And the Lord has blessed our ministry abundantly beyond what we thought would be possible.”