The Salvation Army helps Atlanta man discover life’s better things
By: David Ibata
About 15 years ago, Gary Whitlock started a seasonal job with the Red Kettle Campaign at The Salvation Army Lakewood Corps in Atlanta, Georgia. Captain Marion Platt III – then a cadet at Evangeline Booth College – took notice of him.
“He’s so kind, and he’s very good with people,” said Captain Platt, who had been assigned to Lakewood and was working with the bell ringers. “He was always, always, one of our top kettle workers. He never showed up late, and he was always very respectful and helpful.”
Now, the 68-year-old Whitlock still rings bells around Christmastime. He’s also a custodian at the Ray and Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Atlanta. With the Army’s help, Whitlock has earned his GED and is working toward a college degree as a radiologist technician and showing it’s never too late to go for your dreams.
“I do believe in God,” Whitlock said. “Maybe he wanted me to be here. I’ve been here ever since. The Salvation Army has helped me a lot, straightened my life out.”
Whitlock is a native Atlantan who lives in south Atlanta near where he grew up, one of eight brothers and sisters whose father left when he was 6 years old. He and his siblings were poor, and they were brought up “street wise,” he said. “My step-daddy told me I’d never amount to anything. I was determined to be something worth being, so my sisters and brothers could look up to me.”
Whitlock grew up and got married, and he and his wife Queen Elizabeth Whitlock today have two grown daughters and a son and seven grandchildren. But life threw him some curve balls.
“I did some bad stuff … drugs, and all that,” he said. “I couldn’t take care of my family or hold on to anything. I had knowledge, but the drugs took over that. All I wanted to do was to get high.”
Not one to miss a WHY opportunity, Captain Platt invited Whitlock to church. Whitlock began attending holiness meetings and discovered what he’d been missing.
“My Mama taught us to believe in God,” he said. “I’d been too far away from God. I thought I should get closer, and my life got better. I quit doing drugs – that was a blessing for me – and I started working. I thank God, he helped me quit on my own, while all my friends were dying of drugs.”
Captains Marion and Everette Platt went on to serve as Lakewood corps officers and Atlanta Kroc Center administrators. Today, they are director and assistant director of personnel at Evangeline Booth College.
Captain Marion said that as an officer, he’s always viewed seasonal workers as an extra congregation. “Every morning when they come in, we’d try to be very intentional about building a community around the kettle work,” he said.
“Gary really seemed to enjoy that. He got involved with other things. He’d stop by men’s club meetings from time to time, and he went to men’s camp with us once or twice. I think, really, he just appreciated and enjoyed the community that formed not only around the kettle work team but around the congregation.”
Whitlock followed the Lakewood Corps when it moved into the Kroc Center after the center’s opening in 2008. He participated in its Family Literacy Program, which led to his GED, and he enrolled at Atlanta Metropolitan College to pursue a career in radiology. In January, the Kroc Center hired him as a part-time night custodian so he could work in the evenings and go to class during the day.
Benjamin Scholes, director of operations for the center, said, “Gary is super ambitious and warm – and that’s the ideal employee for us. He really fulfills our mission by shining a light and being a beacon of warmth and welcome to anyone who comes in.”
The people of The Salvation Army, Whitlock said, “brought me to this point where I am now. I believe in myself. I believe that I will make it. And I’ve been taught the better things about life – trying to help us, to bring others up and not put others down. I’m here to show people in my community that there’s more than one way to be.”