FORT WALTON BEACH — The Empty Stocking Fund, distributed by the Fort Walton Beach Salvation Army, serves as a financial stopgap for people who face financial distress in Okaloosa and Walton counties.
Sometimes, however, more can be done.
The national Salvation Army created its Pathway of Hope program with the intention that individual corps offices incorporate the service into their own community outreach programs. Pathway of Hope is available to qualifying Salvation Army clients.
“It could be any client who applied for assistance,” said Lt. Camilo Rojas, who serves as the Fort Walton Beach Salvation Army administrator with his wife, Lt. Monica Rojas. “It could be a family from our after school program. It’s any client, but they have to have a child under the age of 18 years old. They have to be willing to make a commitment.”
Since initiating the Pathway of Hope locally in January 2019, the local branch has had two clients sign up. Both said they have seen a difference in their lives as they meet regularly with Salvation Army Social Services Coordinator Julie Gray. Gray holds a master’s degree in social work.
“Every two weeks we see what goals they have met,” Gray said. “If they’re stuck on certain goals, I help them find resources to meet the goals.
“We start small,” she said. “That could be from learning how to budget. One was finding daycare. She couldn’t find a job because she couldn’t find daycare.”
That client is Stormy Patterson, a single parent of two preschool-age boys, Liam and Benjamin. After moving to the area from Maryland, Patterson heard that she could get a furniture voucher through the Salvation Army.
While Patterson applied for the voucher, Gray suggested Pathway of Hope.
“Since June, I’ve been with them, making goals every couple of weeks,” Patterson said.
“(Julie) will keep you on track,” she added. “You have to abide and complete your goals to continue to receive financial help. It’s kind of like tough love.”
Patterson entered her adult life after a rocky childhood.
“I grew up in foster care,” she said. “I was adopted at 5, and I was put back in foster care at 14. When I was 18, I aged out of foster care, and I was homeless, and I almost didn’t graduate from high school because of that.”
Because of Pathway of Hope, Patterson is now building her own cleaning business.
Participant Samantha Gurisko is also a single parent, but her needs are different with pre-teen daughter Keyona.
Gurisko has a job, but a broken water line gave her a $900 water bill.
“I haven’t ever asked for help,” she said. “Someone told me that (the Salvation Army) helps with utilities.”
Gurisko said she found someone who would listen as she spoke to Gray about her cares: dealing with an eviction on her credit report, raising a daughter whose father is incarcerated, having a sealed arrest record of her own.
“I’ve gone to school. I have certifications,” Gurisko said, but added that she was having trouble making the transition from a job into a career.
Pathway of Hope, she said, has provided the tools she needs to rebuild her life.
“Stay focused,” Gurisko said about what she has learned. “There’s always something that’s going to hold you back, but keep pushing.”
Both Gurisko and Patterson went into the Salvation Army for a one-time solution. Both said they came away with more. Both said they are sharing their stories to let others know that the poverty cycle can be broken, and by sharing, they hope others will take the same steps to success.
This year’s Empty Stocking Fund campaign has a goal of $100,000 to help local people through the Salvation Army.To donate, send checks to Empty Stocking Fund c/o Northwest Florida Daily News, P.O. Box 2949, Fort Walton Beach, FL 32549. Donations of cash and checks can also be brought into the Daily News at 2 Eglin Parkway N.E. in Fort Walton Beach. To donate online, go to http://www.salvationarmyfortwalton.org/