Angel Trees, Mail Collections May Be Army's Salvation

CHARITY IN THE VALLEY: This is the first of a four-part series on charities in the San Fernando Valley. Next Thursday: A Christmas dinner feeds thousands of needy people in the Valley.

December 04, 1986|MIKE WYMA | Wyma is a Toluca Lake free-lance writer.

As the parade of shoppers moves through the first level of the Sherman Oaks Galleria, a few people stop to look at a tall Christmas tree decorated with hundreds of paper angels. The angels come in only two styles: boys and girls. At the bottom of each is a perforated tag that lists a child's first name, age and clothes size.

An occasional shopper asks questions of a uniformed woman sitting nearby, then chooses an angel from the tree. The woman gives the shopper the perforated tag and files the paper angel into a box. An hour or two later, or perhaps in a few days, the shopper returns with gifts for the child and takes home the angel as a Christmas tree or mantle decoration.

The tree in the Galleria is the Salvation Army's "Angel Tree," begun locally last year as a way of adapting to the transfer of holiday shoppers from street-entry stores to those in malls. Traditionally, much of the money spent by the Salvation Army during the holiday season comes from its 95-year-old Christmas kettle program. But the familiar uniformed bell ringers are not welcome in most malls.

Gemco Closings Hurt

John Purdell, 54, commanding officer of the army's San Fernando Valley Corps, said that just one Valley shopping center, the Panorama Mall, permits a bell ringer and kettle on its premises. Another blow to the kettle operation, added the English-born Purdell, is the recent sale of the chain of Gemco stores.

"This will be our last Christmas with them," he said. "Their five Valley stores have been very important locations for us."

But Purdell, a tall, gray-haired man with a childlike earnestness, is not worried. He and his wife, Arrie, 53, were assigned to the Valley corps in 1983. Both auxiliary captains in the army, they practice faith.

"I don't want to sound like a religious fanatic," he said, "but we are a charitable organization, and we believe that God will provide the funds to do our work whether we're in the malls or not. We believe in prayer. A lot of fund raising is done on our knees."

A fresh idea or two doesn't hurt, either. Purdell heard about the angel tree from a Salvation Army corps in Tulsa. The program appeals to mall operators and merchants because there is no bell ringing and because many of the gifts are bought in the mall itself. A donor may buy a child one gift or many. Last year about 2,500 presents went to 875 Valley children, Purdell said. He has signed up 1,000 children for this year's tree.

"We have no difficulty finding the children," he said. "They know about us, and they come to us. Most of them are welfare families or unemployed families. Our center's primary responsibility is for the homeless and the needy poor."

The Salvation Army is a Protestant organization. Its members call themselves soldiers and sign "articles of war," pledging to fight misery and sin. Purdell has a big bass drum that he delights in pounding.

From its Van Nuys headquarters, the Valley corps runs continuing programs that include a Sunday-night dinner for about 100 people, a Friday-night van trip that takes sandwiches and soup to about 150, and distribution each month of about 700 emergency food boxes, containing about a week's supply for a family of four. Purdell said the army buys some of the food; some is donated by the public, and some comes from the federal government's surplus-commodities program.

Gifts of food baskets from the public increase during the holidays, he said. Some groups, such as the employees of Mervyn's Department Store in Northridge, are regular contributors. A representative at Mervyn's said 14 large boxes are being filled this season.

Other contributions also increase at year's end. One recent morning Purdell stood wondering what to do with 2,000 coffee cups that formerly were gathering dust on the shelves of a store. The cups were inscribed with first names that long have gone out of fashion--Dexter, Iva, Abigail and Franz.

"Know any Alvins?" Purdell asked with a laugh. "You can invite them to our bazaar."

Mailed Requests Effective

Purdell said the Valley corps' income in 1985 was $450,000, more than half of it coming from frequent direct-mail appeals run by a divisional office in Los Angeles. Salvation Army thrift stores in the Valley help finance the organization's two local alcohol recovery houses and are a separate operation.

"I'm grateful for the mail appeal," Purdell said of his budget's main source of income, "but I think it's done a little too often. I think it would be more effective and perhaps not put off people if it was done less often."

Helen Ridgewell, assistant director of development at the divisional office, said mail solicitations are sent every January, March, May, August and November, with additional appeals contained in newsletters each February and September. Previous donors and prospective new ones receive the appeals, she said.

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