LOCKPORT — The big, red kettle swinging from the tripod and the gent or lady ringing the bell for donations is a common sight this time of year, but few know the story behind that familiar Salvation Army symbol of the holiday season.
“Doing the most good for the most people in the most need,” is the motto.
Chris Gresart, social services director for the Salvation Army in Lockport, explained that his location at 50 Cottage St. has a food pantry open three days a week that assists 150 families a month; a soup kitchen open at 11 every morning, Monday through Friday, feeding around 100 – and sometimes up to 200 – people a day; kids’ homework help every day after school; and fellowship and worship services in the chapel on Sundays.
In addition, there are programs like Bridging the Gap, a 12-week life skills curriculum for at-risk youth that focusing on crime prevention and intervention; rent and utility assistance; women’s ministries; Narcotics Anonymous meetings; Bible study; Sunday school; and summer day camp and open gym time for basketball, which will resume after the holidays.
The biggest one-day effort involves more than 30 volunteers who put on a Thanksgiving Day dinner.
“We served a little more than 400 meals this year,” Gresart said.
"There’s a whole lot of people who don’t realize all of what we do,” he added.
Donations collected at six “Red Kettle” sites in Lockport, Wrights Corners and Newfane help fund all of these programs, Gresart noted. The drive began Nov. 13 and ran through Dec. 23.
Making sure all of the shifts are covered is just one of Gresart’s duties as director of volunteers for all of the Lockport site’s activities.
“I have some Red Kettle volunteers who don’t drive, so I’ll pick them up and get them home, and I try and do as many personal hours as I can, myself,” Gresart said. “I fill in the gaps in the schedule, and I enjoy doing it.
“There are people I see while doing this each year that I grew up with and I only get to see them once a year while I’m standing in front of Walmart at Christmastime,” he said with a laugh.
Gresart also has been the driving force for the past decade behind a large, seasonal project. The Lockport Salvation Army has shipped eight oversized greeting cards overseas and to local facilities this year as part of a special Christmas card project to cheer U.S. armed forces and veterans away from home for the holidays.
Each card measures 26-by-40 inches and contains 20 pages full of greetings from the community for U.S. troops stationed overseas. Cards also are delivered to the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Buffalo and New York State Veterans Home in Batavia.
It takes months to collect these colorful greetings, and the cards bound for overseas must be shipped prior to Thanksgiving, Gresart noted. This year, they were headed to soldiers stationed in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
They contained messages from schoolchildren in the Lockport, Newfane, Starpoint and Lewiston-Porter districts, local churches, organizations and businesses, even fire and police departments, as well as individuals willing to take a minute to compose a cheery note.
The project has been a cooperative effort of the Salvation Army, local military units, local artists and the community since 2007.
Gresart recently took a few minutes during his busiest time of year to talk about his pet project, how it came to be, and his own path to his current career.
Q: What inspired this oversized greeting card idea?
A: I was working for Salvation Army in Bennington, Vt., when I was assigned with the Salvation Army to New York City after 9/11. It was a tough assignment, at the morgue, where I helped feed the first responders that came in.
When I got back to Bennington, as part of my own debriefing, I created a huge banner, it must have been 24 inches by 12 feet long, and I went around the community and had people sign it. When I went back to New York City, I took it with me for people to see that a lot of others in the community wanted to share their encouragement.
Years later, when we moved back to Lockport, we had a 36-hour Christmas Red Kettle marathon. It worked out well and we got a lot of publicity, and the year after that, we were trying to come up with another unique idea for Christmas.
We were talking about how, when we did the Kettle Drive, the most people that would come up and thank us for all Salvation Army does were the people who had served our country. We started thinking about making a big, barn-door sized sign for them, but then one of our volunteers contacted the post office to see what the biggest size card was that we could ship.
We decided to make the world’s largest Christmas card. Micro Graphics in Lockport provided their expertise and still does all of the covers for us at no cost each year. We had a picture of Santa for the cover our first year, then one of our volunteers, Hank Beamer, who is a big part of this project, contacted (the late) Joe Whalen and he designed a cover with original artwork for our second year. This year, we have a photograph for the first time instead of a painting, and it’s by Phil Pantano.
Q: So, it’s referred to as a "card," but it sounds more like a big book, right?
A: We started with four cards with five pages each, and that’s grown to eight cards with about 20 pages each. We kick off Memorial Day weekend with a display at the Tops Market on Transit Road and our last big event is there on Veterans Day. We also leave it in the Lockport Library and I take it to the Lockport Community Farmer’s Market on Saturdays through the summer, as well as other places. Most people like to write messages and sometimes make little drawings, like Christmas trees.
Q: Is it a challenge to devote so much time to this?
A: It’s my way of saying "thanks" to the men and women who serve our country. I wanted to serve out of high school, but I had an eye injury at 14 that I found out was a disqualifying condition.
My wife, Sandy, calls this project our "second child" and our daughter, Melissa, refers to it as her "little brother." (laugh) But I don’t mind giving up my time to do it.
We’re trying to reach people who are away from home for Christmas, that’s why we include the hospital in Buffalo and the home in Batavia, too.
Q: Do you have any particularly touching stories as a result of this project?
A: A couple of years ago, I was walking into the lobby of the Veterans Hospital with a card and another guy was coming in at the same time and asked me what it was. I explained it, and he said he was a Vietnam-era veteran and he wished people would have thanked him when he came home from the service. He said he was grateful someone was taking the time to say "thanks" now.
Several years ago, we had a little boy sign it, writing, "Thank you for protecting us from tourists." I think he meant terrorists. (laugh) And I had a woman sign it "Merry Christmas" and her husband came up behind her and wrote "Have a Merrier Christmas than what she said." (laugh)
We once had a soldier from Buffalo and his unit overseas received a card on Dec. 21. When he came back home, he had an American flag with a certificate saying it flew in combat in Afghanistan on Christmas Day and he hand-delivered it to us in Lockport.
Q: How do you pick whom you send these to?
A: We have to send them to individuals, not to units, and we get names and addresses from the National Guard family services. We have a contact at the Niagara Falls Air Base who is very good to us. We get the addresses in early November.
Q: What led you to a career with Salvation Army?
A: I was born in Lockport and entered a Salvation Army Sunday School contest when I was 4. My mom started working there when I was 9 or 10, and I’d go to the gym to play basketball.
I took some wrong turns after that, and I was in my early 20s when I came back to Salvation Army, and it was through basketball, again. I wanted to play in a league there, but the condition was that I had to attend church to play. I went to church and things started sinking in.
A rock band came to Lockport – it was the same night Bon Jovi was playing in Buffalo but I couldn’t afford that ticket – so I went to see the band in Lockport, instead. I didn’t know it was a Christian rock band.
The band members talked about how Jesus Christ had changed each of their lives. When the drummer talked, it was like he was telling my life story. Single mom, raised by grandparents while Mom worked, growing up on the other side of the railroad tracks, drugs, basically having your life stolen away from you.
They said, "If you want to come up here, we’ll pray with you." I had been sitting there with my shoes off, relaxing, and I didn’t even take the time to put them on. Up I went.
The drummer had a Salvation Army sticker on his drum case and I noticed it and told him I went there and he told me it was a good place to go. He gave me a copy of a book written by a Salvation Army officer and told me to read it and pass it on. It was about living life in the fullness of God. And that confirmed that the Salvation Army was where I wanted to be.
Q: What happened next?
A: I got more involved with Salvation Army. God turned my life around when I was invited to play on a Salvation Army co-ed softball team with Sandy, whom I had seen at Salvation Army activities through the years. I asked her out after a softball game. In April we’ll have our 30th wedding anniversary.
Then, I was chaperoning a youth event at Houghton College around 1987 and they asked if anyone felt God calling them into full-time ministry. I went back to Lockport and talked to Sandy about it, and she said she had felt God calling her into ministry that weekend while she was in church in Lockport, too.
We did an internship for two years in Glens Falls, N.Y., then training for two years in Suffern, N.Y. Then we started a Salvation Army chapter from scratch in Bennington, Vt. It was beautiful there, but economically, not so good. We were there eight years.
We came back to Lockport in 2004. My wife works in senior care at the Lockport Presbyterian Home now.
Q: What’s the best part of your job?
A: When we’re able to help people.
The most difficult part is that there are some people you just can’t help.
And the toughest time is when someone has a legitimate need and you don’t have the resources to meet that need. That is really heartbreaking.
Q: Is the Christmas Kettle Drive going well this year?
A: We’re a little behind where we were last year (in donations), and a lot of other Salvation Army sites are saying the same thing, that it might have been all of the nice weather we were having. Maybe it just didn’t feel like Christmas yet. Especially when we’re standing at outdoor locations, maybe people feel a little sorry for us out there in the cold and are a bit more willing to give. (laugh).