The Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program continues to inspire after more than 40 years

By: Brad Rowland

In 1979, a pair of Salvation Army officers initiated a program that will continue in earnest in 2022 and beyond. Lt. Colonels Charles and Shirley White were young officers in Lynchburg, Virginia when a local shopping mall approached The Salvation Army in search of a new and innovative way to partner during the Christmas season. That partnership grew into the Angel Tree program that is now utilized across the Southeast, the United States, and world, with 472 children receiving new toys and clothes in the first year and the initiative growing exponentially in its reach over the course of 43 years. 

The Angel Tree program will touch the lives of many in 2022, though the program takes on different forms in each community across the USA Southern Territory. Captains Jimmy and Lacy Parrish, area commanders in Louisville, Kentucky, lead a program that serves as a clear example of Angel Tree’s wide-ranging impact. 

In the burgeoning city of Louisville, the Angel Tree program officially kicks off in September with the distribution of letters to schedule appointments for those seeking Christmas assistance. These individuals return in October with the letter, a formal application, and details about their children’s needs and sizes, followed by a verification process conducted by qualified case managers onsite. Louisville’s sign-up process is done on paper, with other locales utilizing mobile and online programming as technology becomes pervasive. 

Tulsa, Oklahoma is an example of technological infusion under the leadership of Captain Dan and Major Sarah Nelson, with more than 90 percent of Angel Tree registration taking place online. This process takes place through the Angel Tree mechanism from The Salvation Army Mission Manager (TSAMM), and the planning and integration process begins each summer. That is followed by a comprehensive volunteer training process in August and a public registration process in early September, broken down into five geographic areas with vetted applications for each family. 

The Angel Tree program’s flexibility can also be seen through the adoption process, with commands leaning on the help of the public to make Christmas special for families. Some communities have extensive corporate infrastructures for widespread adoptions, while others lean heavily into shopping mall adoption programs that have decades-long relationships. Throughout the process, Salvation Army units must track the progress of each angel to ensure total coverage, all while operating in various warehouse infrastructures to put Christmas packages together. 

In Louisville, Captain Lacy Parrish and her team rely on an Angel Tree tracking software that she refers to as the “Cadillac” of the space. The system was implemented approximately eight years ago through the generous help of a local technology company, and the software allows for full tracking of angels through every step of the process. 

“It does almost anything I would’ve ever thought of needing for Angel Tree,” said Captain Parrish. “It’s phenomenal. It takes the guesswork out of anything and really makes life easier for us to make things the best they can be for those in need.” 

Other corps and commands may take a more low-tech approach to angel tracking, but the care in which packages are put together is crucial. In Tulsa, staff and volunteers vet each Angel Tree application with substantial assistance from the Women’s Auxiliary, and members generously devote time to review applications and volunteer throughout the process. This formula is executed in similar fashion elsewhere, and volunteer engagement is crucial to the effort. 

Simply put, no Salvation Army location can operate the extensive outreach of the Angel Tree program without the help of volunteers. Whether these volunteers are aiding in the registration process, the warehousing effort, or at distribution, individuals or corporate entities connect with The Salvation Army through a mutual goal to help others. While the Christmas season creates clear opportunities for volunteer partnerships, this can also serve as a springboard for year-round impact. 

“Christmas is definitely the time when the community sees us the most,” said Captain Parrish. “That is the case almost everywhere, but it is definitely true in Louisville, and we keep that in mind.” 

“We really try to use Angel Tree to tie in volunteers for the rest of the year. We have a great volunteer coordinator named Jeremy (Warf) that had it all under control before we even got here, and he does a great job letting volunteers know what we’re here to do. Everything comes back to our roots and our mission, and it happens all throughout the year.” 

The Angel Tree program can be formulaic by necessity, but each command has its own flourishes. Some focus on the crossover between Angel Tree and Red Kettle programs, as the pair operate simultaneously and can provide far-reaching impact. Others implement drive-through distributions, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and center on efficiency. 

Two specific examples can be seen in the Louisville area. The Salvation Army and Kroger have an ongoing partnership in the Louisville area, with customers given the opportunity to add $25 to their grocery bills to benefit The Salvation Army and the Angel Tree program. This leads to the distribution of gift cards along with toy packages in the area, aiming to deliver comprehensive assistance that will meet people where they are. 

The Salvation Army also maintains a fruitful relationship with local television station WAVE 3 in Louisville. Wave 3, part of Gray Media, has been a partner for more than two decades, and the station extensively features The Salvation Army throughout the year, going as far as to include promotion of the organization in the station’s own commercials. This peaks during the Christmas season with an annual “Angel-A-Thon” fundraiser that generated more than $100,000 in 2021. 

“I’ve never seen anything like the help and publicity we get from WAVE 3 and we’re really grateful for it,” said Captain Parrish. “The Angel-A-Thon is a great example, and it really is maybe my favorite day of the year.” 

The grand finale of each annual Angel Tree season is the distribution process, which takes on different forms based on the needs of each command. Louisville holds a two-day distribution event, with Lubbock showcasing a multi-day event locally and another day-long distribution in nearby Plainview. Tulsa hosts a distribution at each of five sites within the Area Command structure, and larger cities may hold distributions over the course of days and weeks. 

While the logistical function of these distribution experiences is to bring the joy of Christmas to families through toys, bikes, clothing and more, it is also an opportunity for The Salvation Army to bring the word of Jesus Christ to others. 

“We do not want distribution to just be an assembly line,” said Major Dawn Worthy. “This is where contact is so important. We have a prayer table set up. We have Santa on hand for photos. Cookies and hot chocolate are offered. Parents are able to take home extra freebies for their children. It is important that this is not just a handout. This is where we share Christ in whatever way we can.” 

“In interviews with families around the Tulsa area, we hear regularly that, with costs increasing, families have zero financial margin for anything beyond the essentials. Angel Tree won’t ‘fix’ their struggles, but it does lift the burden of imagining Christmas morning with nothing for their children,” said Major Sarah Nelson. “In that sense, the gift of Angel Tree has doubled in that it blesses the children and also the parents and guardians. When life feels like an uphill climb every day, the help associated with Angel Tree can provide an added boost and a little extra support for the journey. The goal is to provide help for today and hope for tomorrow.” 

The impact of The Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program will be felt for years and decades to come, both in meeting human need without discrimination in the present and building long-lasting relationships with individuals, families, local leaders, businesses, and corporations in various communities. Through it all, the gospel message permeates every aspect, and the message of the Good News will be shared to thousands from sign-up to adoption to distribution and beyond. 

“We try to share the gospel from registration all the way through the process,” Captain Parrish said. “When people come to register, we try to connect with them on a deeper level and pray with them. That is great one-on-one contact before any gifts are exchanged. I’ve also learned to look for those genuine connections and try to figure out how to reach people. We pray that the Lord will open doors for us to connect with people through Angel Tree.”