Southwest Pilot Helps Snack Pack Program ‘Take Off’

By: Major Frank Duracher

Lauren Van Damme, a pilot for Southwest Airlines for 19 years, met The Salvation Army through the Angel Tree program in Columbia, South Carolina a few years ago. So impressed was she with the Army’s mission and ministry that she became a faithful member of the advisory board in Charleston where she presently serves as the board’s secretary.

But one program has proved to be especially near and dear to her heart. Volunteer coordinator Leslie Wilfong tells us, “Lauren was totally sold out for our Snack Pack Program.”

“She jumped right in with gusto,” marvels Captain Cathy Michels, Charleston Citadel corps officer.

The Snack Pack Program was initially adopted and tweaked from a similar program in place, operated by Sarah Gamble at the Charlotte Area Command.

“I attended a conference last year and met Sarah, and I asked her for suggestions to jazz up our program here in Charleston, and she told me about Snack Packs,” Leslie explains. Bringing the idea home to the Low Country (as southern counties in South Carolina are called), Leslie shared the program with Lauren.

The program involves supplying lunch bags with snack items for kids, high in protein and low in sugar. Attention is also given to avoiding products which may affect allergies in children, such as peanuts.

“I saw my role as offering to advisory board members a chance to commit as they can,” Lauren says. “I came up with a cost to fill about 150 bags at a time, and while some board members contributed money to buy the items, other board members bought and donated the items themselves,” such as Goldfish crackers or fruit juices.

“When I moved here to Charleston,” she adds, “I looked up The Army and began volunteering.” Not long after, she was asked to join the advisory board. She even recruited her stepdaughter to help pack the bags and write little messages of hope and encouragement to the children.

What is equally important to this nutritious program is the number of doors of opportunity opened to The Salvation Army in the three counties in this command.

In Charleston County, Leslie follows Charleston police patrol cars with the Salvation Army canteen throughout low-income neighborhoods. While police officers build positive relationships with the kids, she distributes the Snack Packs, knowing that it might be the only nutritious food they will have that day.

A monthly movie night is another byproduct—the county provides the projector and movie, while The Army provides the Boys & Girls Club gym and popcorn. They were also able to host a Trunk & Treat at Halloween for about 100 kids.

The Dorchester County government operates a swimming program, where children learn to swim and important life-saving techniques. The Army partners with them to attend the classes and distribute the Snack Packs when the kids leave for home.

So grateful were Dorchester officials to The Army for this partnership, this Christmas they volunteered in all aspects of the Angel Tree program for the county—including registration, adoptions, filling gift bags, and distribution.

In Berkeley County, school supplies and Snack Packs were given out at community events. A monthly one-stop event is planned for the new year, where the partnership will be extended.

Yet another partnership emerged with The Palmetto Palace, a mobile pharmacy operated by Dr. Youlanda Gibbs and two medical assistants. The program is dedicated to helping mostly older people with chronic illnesses, so The Army adapted the Snack Pack program to meet the needs of elderly people waiting for their prescriptions to be filled. These senior citizens often don’t get the nutrition they need, or they simply haven’t eaten that day.

The Charleston-Berkeley Fire Department (located in an area on the two counties’ border) is another Snack Pack partner for events such as Fire Prevention Week.

“It takes just a few volunteers to stuff 150 bags,” Lauren says. “It’s actually a little easier with a handful of workers so we can concentrate on the assembly line, which typically takes a couple of hours.”

The next batch of Snack Pack bags are filled when supplies begin to run low and upcoming events approach. Packing volunteers range from Women’s Ministry members, Boys & Girls Club kids, and even a few residents from Leslie’s mom’s retirement community.

“Partnerships made through these little Snack Packs, as well as making sure these children get something nutritious to eat, makes this program a very worthwhile one—especially for a nominal investment,” Lauren exclaims.

It’s a win-win for everyone.