Transforming lives through the Salvation Army
By Laura Ross
Photos by Kathryn Harrington
“I wanted to kill myself. I didn’t want to live. Life was that bad. I hated my life, and I was adding two little people to this world.”
April Hickman, 37, was pregnant with her daughter Michilee and had a 1-year-old daughter, Marlee. She was trying to escape from a lifetime of family addiction and poverty. She’d taken to visiting various hospital ER waiting rooms, just so her daughter had a safe, warm place to sleep. She had zero options.
She eventually entered the Salvation Army’s emergency family homeless shelter and later its transitional program. A social worker then made a suggestion that transformed April’s life: enroll in the Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope program.
Today, three years later, Hickman and her daughters have a home and are thriving, and Hickman has launched a business. She discovered she has an affinity for designing and sewing children’s clothing, and with the help of the Salvation Army, she recently launched Wonderfulee Marlee and has plans to grow her designs.
“I said, ‘OK, April, you’ve got to do better,’” she said. “It’s like God was saying, ‘This is your only opportunity. Anything past this point, you have no excuse.’”
Louisville is one of a handful of Salvation Army regions that offer Pathway of Hope. Started in 2014, the program provides individualized services to families trying to break the cycle of poverty and crisis. It’s not considered a Band-Aid, but a long-term commitment to address the root causes of poverty and build stability and self-sufficiency for the family.
“I wasn’t thinking about long-term anything,” said Hickman. “I needed to know where we were going to sleep tonight. No one had ever talked to me about setting goals before. I learned I couldn’t just sit here and wait for good things to come to me, but instead, I had to go out there and be proactive.”
“Families come to us overwhelmed with no direction,” said Johanna Wint, director of the Center for Hope at the Salvation Army. “Pathway of Hope is like a life coach. For the first six to nine months of the program, we stabilize the family by helping with immediate emergency needs, whether it’s rent, bills, social services – all things that allow them to breathe.”
Once the emergency period passes, the Pathway of Hope program works on financial empowerment, including counseling on budgets, housing readiness, job searches and daily life management like cooking, childcare and education assistance. Families work with counselors to map life goals – both immediate and long-term. The goals are broken down into workable tasks that the family progresses through over the course of up to two years.
It becomes a personal journey with the case managers fully involved in the family’s life. “The case manager visits at home, work, on weekends and more,” said Wint. “It’s beyond 9 to 5; we go to you. It builds a level of trust and shows that we value their time, their struggles and their family life.”
Pathway of Hope approaches each family in a holistic manner, customizing the services to each family’s needs. It offers practical, spiritual and community guidance and support that can range from job training, health services, child care, education support or legal services.
“The program helped me get a computer so I could research and set up my business,” said Hickman. “I never could have done that on my own. If you think you have no options and don’t have the ability to dream, that’s just sad. It has really changed my idea about how I want to live my life, and I hold myself accountable to my goals now.”
Hickman has traveled to New York and other locations, growing her business. Her new goal is to own her own home and travel more with her children. “Pathway of Hope is all about healing who you are,” said Hickman. “With everything we’ve seen and been through, our lives could have been very different.”
Like April Hickman, Chantel Kissel, 35, saw her family spiral into crisis. In 2015, Kissel’s family was at a crossroads. Her husband was mired in alcohol addiction and unemployment; her children – Alek, 10, Nick, 8, and Lilak, 1 – struggled with a difficult home life, and Chantel worked multiple jobs to hold her family together, simultaneously contemplating divorce. Her husband, Aaron, entered a Salvation Army alcohol rehab program in Ohio, and Chantel entered the Pathway of Hope program in Louisville.
“Pathway of Hope held me accountable to my goals,” Kissel said. “They never judged me. Growing up, I didn’t trust nobody. I had no friends. Over time, the people at Pathway of Hope became my friends and taught me how to trust. It was a relief and a weight off my shoulders because I realized I wasn’t doing it all by myself and there was help out there if you’re willing to let it happen.”
Pathway of Hope helped Kissel with financial planning, the search for a car and housing, clothing and school supplies and counseling for her entire family. “It was chaotic in my mind, but I set one goal at a time and achieved it one day at a time,” she said. “My husband and I got our credit scores up, paid off our bills and we’re learning how to budget. He’s out of rehab and keeping a steady job. He’s proud of himself, and I’m proud of him. Our kids see a big difference. It’s been hard, I won’t lie, but they are closer to their father now and we’ve learned how to function as a family again.”
The Kissel family has come full circle in three years. They are close to purchasing their first home, which they never expected, and their children are enrolling in private school. “I would never dream my kids could go to private school,” Kissel said. Her case manager helped Kissel navigate the application and financial aid process for her son Nick to enroll in the West End Boys School. “We loved it, but he was put on a waiting list. In June, we got a call that he was invited to a summer camp there, and I was like, ‘Heck yeah!’ He’s never shown so much excitement for school.”
Her daughter is paying it forward as well. Now 13, Alek volunteers at the Salvation Army. “I’ve watched her change from defiance to appreciation,” said Kissel. “She says it’s the least she can do to help others who are in similar situations as we were. As a mom, that’s amazing to witness.”
Currently, Louisville’s Pathway of Hope is assisting about 40 families with a yearly goal of reaching 50 families. “You’d think we’d have a line out the door for this program, but we don’t,” said Wint. “It’s hard for people to change, and if you’ve been living a certain way, you have to want that change. When they realize we’re serious about the work and the goals, a lot of people drop out. You must have the commitment. We’re trying to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and the only way you can do that is to help families navigate the maze.”
The Salvation Army relies on outside funding and grants for Pathway of Hope. “We need additional funding to match our growth,” said Major Roy Williams, Salvation Army Area Commander for the Louisville region. “We are so much more than a homeless shelter. Seventy percent of our residents have jobs; they just can’t afford housing or are in crisis. Programs like Pathway of Hope help us change lives.”
Once participants “graduate” from the program, case managers continue to check on the families on a regular basis. Many participants recommend Pathway of Hope to others. Both Kissel and Hickman have encouraged friends and family to join Pathway of Hope.
“Both my sister and friend are in hard times,” said Kissel. “I told them, ‘I promise you, they will help you meet your goals. If you are willing to work, you will be a better person.’”
Beth Yeager, assistant director of the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope, worked with both Hickman and Kissel in the program. “Both of these women represent the two-generational approach,” she said. “They were both so overwhelmed with trying not to slip into abysmal poverty each day, and their focus was on their children. The program helped stabilize them within the first six months. It’s about helping the whole family rise out of poverty by building skills to grow their estimation of themselves, their vision of what they can be and how they can change their children’s lives going forward.
“It’s not about what I want as a counselor,” added Yeager. “It’s easy for me to say you should or shouldn’t do this, but I have to let them make the best decision for their family.”
For Kissel, that meant giving her family unit one more try. “I couldn’t do it anymore. I’d given my husband so many chances. I had to help my family. We took the chance and turned it around and are doing the best we can. That’s what my kids see now,” she said.
There were dark moments when Hickman wasn’t sure she’d continue the program. “Oh yes, I’ve cried, I’ve prayed,” she said. “I’ve been sewing and thinking and just shouted, ‘OK, God, I quit. I’m just done. I can’t do this. I’m not strong enough.’” But then Hickman thought of her goals. “I’m only defeated if I give up and disappoint everyone who believed in me. My children can now see a life outside of poverty. They see a world that is bigger than shelters and addicts.”
The key to the program is family stability, said Williams. It’s not just about homeless people living under bridges, but could be anyone in any situation. “We are all just one phone call, one accident, one job loss away from potential disaster,” said Williams.
“You have to remember,” he emphasized, “that most people have a safety net. If something went wrong today, what would I do? I have $5,000 in a savings account. I have parents who can watch my children. I have a friend who can give me a ride to work. Most of our families don’t have any of that. They are in a downward spiral that is nearly impossible to escape.”
“Pathway of Hope teaches them that yes, someone cares about me,” Williams added. “They actually care that I have dreams and goals for my family. When those families accomplish whatever that dream is, it’s overwhelming.”
Wint agreed. “When you see the self-confidence they gain, the communities they build, the success they have as a family, you realize that they are not only affecting today, they’re affecting generations to come. To an outsider, it’s one person’s success, but we see success for years to come. It’s a multiplier effect that is transformative.”
Kissel has watched the metamorphosis of her family but knows it wasn’t always easy. “Never, ever give up,” she said. “You have to be willing to trust and accept that someone will help you. You must set goals and be headstrong. The people at Pathway of Hope take you by the hand, pick you up, and within a year, you’re lifted. They are as excited about your progress as you are.”
“When I tell people about Pathway of Hope, it’s simple,” said Hickman. “I say, ‘Aren’t you tired? Aren’t you tired of being absent from your own life? Aren’t you tired of seeing your kids suffer? Aren’t you tired of being sick and tired?’”
Hickman looked at her children, happily playing house across the room. “I’m blessed. My girls are happy-go-lucky, outgoing children. One wrong decision to not be a part of Pathway of Hope could have seen life go in the opposite direction for my girls, but I was determined that that would not happen. The opposite of hope is despair. When you’re in despair and find hope, it’s lifegiving. That’s what Pathway of Hope has meant to our family.” VT
In 2017, the Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope program worked with 62 families. As of July 2018, there are already 40 families in the program with more to add by the end of 2018.
2017 Pathway of Hope
40 families improved their income (65%)
60 families kept or attained sustainable housing (97%)
Children in 59 families remained stable in school (95%)
Success beyond the stats:
A single mom obtained a full-time job with benefits and became a first-time home buyer.
A domestic violence survivor found housing and a job and has her children in support programs for domestic violence survivors.
A family found stable housing and focused on a child who was having issues in school. The child now has perfect attendance and has joined the band and chess club at school.
The Salvation Army’s Pathway of Hope project relies on community support and grants to provide funding for its families and services. To learn more about giving opportunities for Pathway of Hope, visit salvationarmylouisville.org