Salvation Army leaders have service in the bloodline

Captains Justin and Stephanie Vincent arrived in Odessa over the summer and are prepping for their first holiday season here. (Courtesy Photo)

Don’t let the young, fresh faces of Captains Justin and Stephanie Vincent fool you.

These guys are old pros with the Salvation Army. Some might even say it is in their bloodlines.

The Vincents arrived in Odessa with baby boy Charlie to head up Odessa’s Salvation Army this summer. They have spent their time learning the area and preparing for the busiest time of year for all Salvation Army locations – Christmas.

Their prior appointments included Freeport, Amarillo, and Memphis, their first assignment as a married couple.

The remarkable thing about these new Odessa leaders is how far back their families go in service to the Salvation Army.

Justin Vincent is a third generation Salvation Army officer and his wife is a second generation officer.

Justin’s grandmother in 1979 founded what is today the Angel Tree program, which is used around the world by the Salvation Army to help bring a bright holiday to needy children.

The Salvation Army Odessa’s Simon Aguilar, right, and Joann Gomez push bicycles to their new owners during their Angel Tree gift distribution Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, at Salvation Army Odessa. (OA File Photo)

She used a Christmas greeting card with an angel on it to create small hanging paper ornaments with the wants and needs of local children in Lynchburg, Virginia. Since that time, Salvation Army offices around the world use those Angel Trees to help community children have a happy holiday.

In Odessa, the Angel Tree registration begins next week with some changes this year. Those wanting to apply must call in advance for an appointment (432-332-0738). Applications are only accepted through Oct. 20.

As families sign up for the holiday help, they will also be assessed for help through the Empty Stocking Fund, a joint effort of the Odessa American and the Salvation Army that provides a backup to Angel Tree. Small gifts for children and needy seniors and a holiday meal for families are provided through the Empty Stocking Fund. This year’s goal is $100,000. Last year the Fund raised $130,020.16 and in the last 28 years has raised more than $2.2 million. This year will be the 29th year for the Fund.

The Vincents are excited for their first holiday season here and plan to keep it organized and moving as efficiently as possible. They are looking for holiday volunteers to ring the bells between mid-November through the week of Christmas.

They also need help in the toy department. “It’s fun to play Santa,” Stephanie Vincent said of the Angel Tree preparations. She said volunteers are needed to sort gifts and prepare the bags that families will take home for gifts under the tree.

She said her fondest holiday memories are going with her mom to set up Angel Trees and then later in the season to help pass out the gifts. Angel trees will be set up in Odessa at various places including Music City Mall. Odessans can grab an angel and fill the needs on the form and return those gifts to the Salvation Army.

All gifts are passed out the week before Christmas to families that have been vetted by the Salvation Army.

The familiar Salvation Army Angel Tree logo has undergone a number of re-designs over the years. Applications in Odessa for this year’s Angel Tree will require an appointment with the Salvation Army. Call 432-332-0738 to schedule an appointment and to find out what documentation is needed. (Courtesy Photo)

Stephanie Vincent said her history with the Salvation Army has helped her improve a little bit each holiday season in terms of organization for gift time. She said having parents who served and also her husband’s family line helps smooth things along each year in what is a massive undertaking as hundreds of families and typically more than 1,000 children receive gifts and food for the holidays.

“The advice they give is great,” she said of her parents and her husband’s family. “They can look at a photo of our setup and offer some thoughts on ways to make it more efficient.”

Her husband’s parents and grandmother are retired although they continue to serve the Salvation Army in various ways. His grandfather died several years ago. “My grandmother still volunteers in the thrift store (in Kentucky) and helps organize Christmas.”

He reflected a bit on the legacy of his family with the Salvation Army. “It’s a little surreal at times…we grew up and did the programs everywhere…the legacy there makes you want to do it better or at the very least just don’t mess it up,” he said.

He said for him it was service overseas that opened his eyes to real poverty and he felt that gentle tug at his heart leading him to service. He was on a mission trip in the Caribbean on an island where cruise liners go. “You see the really wealthy and then go a little bit away from that and it was startling to see how people live. Even being lower middle class in the U.S. is vastly different…if you can look at that poverty and it doesn’t tug at your heart…I don’t know what you are doing,” he said.

He was 18 when called to service after witnessing that harsh poverty. “The legacy of my parents and grandparents…there was a desire to do this…it was a driving force and I felt called by God to give my life to this work.”

Stephanie Vincent was in school to become a nurse when she knew God was calling her in a different direction.

“It’s a tough life…as a kid you move around and leaving can be tough and seeing your parents work so hard and that they are not always appreciated,” she said.

At age 22 she went as a chaperone on a weekend trip for teen girls and while there knew that tugging at her heart was God wanting her to do more than just attend church or chaperone teen events.

“God said I want your full life and you to be dedicated…God laid things out for me,” she recalled. She said she jumped in and said “here I am, Lord,” and that it has been amazing since. “There are hard days but the good days outweigh it…I wear a lot of different hats and it is never dull.”

The couple met soon after both had accepted their calling would be in the Salvation Army. Stephanie Vincent said she grew up with her husband’s family in and out of her life through the Salvation Army but had never met him.

What started as a nice friendship turned into something more and about 13 years ago the pair married at the Salvation Army camp where they met in Kentucky. They would later head back to Kentucky to adopt son, Charlie.

Justin Vincent said becoming a parent cemented for him how important the work the Salvation Army does at Christmas is. “The joy on a parent’s face keeps me going.”

His wife agreed. “We love Christmas…in the Salvation Army we often see people at both their very best and their worst. Our goal is to help them get to the very best they can.”

Both have become big fans of Odessa and love the sunsets. They said they are committed to making the Odessa Salvation Army a better partner to all of Odessa and pledge to get the shelter open as more than just a severe weather shelter.

Volunteer Maria Lopez helps bring a bike outside for the gift distribution Monday, Dec. 19, 2022, at the Odessa Salvation Army. (Michael Bauer|Odessa American)

The shelter was refurbished several years ago but several things kept it from reopening as planned. An expensive fire alarm system had to be installed and that delayed the re-opening of the shelter and then COVID hit and that also affected the re-opening.

Justin Vincent called the shelter a top priority. He said Odessa has a need for the shelter but that most of us are conditioned to not see the homeless population. “It makes us uncomfortable…we are conditioned to not see…we may not see the tent cities in Odessa every day but they are there. Many are living in their cars…many don’t fit the Hollywood version of what a homeless person looks like…but they are there.”

The goal is to get it back to an emergency shelter that is always open.

“We have to be able to shelter people and get them safe and then figure out what is next,” he said.

The Salvation Army shelter should be able to help folks first with basic needs. “The first goal is get them inside and safe and work on basic needs like hygiene and have you had a meal recently.”

He said next is to figure out through casework how to move forward and help them figure out what needs to be done.

His wife agreed saying that they don’t want them to come back month after month with the same issues. It is not a long time shelter. It is there to help people in crisis with immediate needs and then to gently push them on the way to self sufficiency.

They are back to hosting an evening meal Mondays through Fridays at the shelter, another service that was lost for the most part during the pandemic.

They need volunteers and staff for both the meal service and for the shelter. They could use board games and books for those who are eating at the shelter and for when the shelter opens full time.

“We deal with keeping people alive and whatever we can do to keep someone safe and fed…we are going to do it,” he added.

Need to apply for the Angel Tree or Empty Stocking Fund?

  • This year applicants must have an appointment by calling 432-223-0738. The application period is from Oct. 9 to Oct. 20. Call 432-332-0738.