From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

One Step Ahead

Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.

Helen Keller

As I prepared dinner, my twelve-year-old daughter, Ashley, ran into the kitchen and shouted, “Mom, have you seen the news today?”

“Yes, dear. Why do you ask?” That began a week I will never forget.

The news revolved around a flood that hit Elba, Alabama, a small town to our south. A low area already prone to flooding, Elba relied on a levee system to hold back the waters of the Pea River. Heavy rains created excessive pressure on the levee, causing it to give way. The entire town was suddenly engulfed in water. Everything in its path was gone, and several families were left with nothing.

“Mom, can I help?” Ashley asked with compassionate concern. Her idea was to start a nonperishable food drive for the people of this small town. Knowing that food was of major importance, she was especially concerned for the babies. Having a baby brother herself, she knew there would also be a critical need for other items, such as diapers.

Ashley asked, “Can I help get things for these people?”

“Yes . . . but how will you deliver these items, dear?”

“That is where you come in, Mom. Will you help me?” Knowing full well what my answer would be, our work began. As Ashley planned how to collect the items, I helped her find a way to transport them.

She placed boxes in the school and local businesses to collect what she could. Ashley made flyers on the computer, announcing the food drive and posted them throughout the neighborhood. I called the Salvation Army and arranged for them to deliver the food to Elba. Since they had already been there with desperately needed supplies, some of the items would remain with our local Salvation Army for use in future disaster relief efforts.

Because their supplies were dwindling rapidly from the recent flood in Elba, they helped us set the date, and our collection began.

Everything went well until one week into our food drive. On April 8, 1998, a tornado struck Birmingham, Alabama, and completely destroyed everything in its path, killing more than thirty people and leaving little behind.

The major with the Salvation Army phoned me and said, “If it’s all right with you and Ashley, we’d like to send the majority of the items you collected to the tornado victims in Birmingham.” Since efforts were already underway in Elba and the people in Birmingham were in such dire need, naturally we agreed.

Already one step ahead of the rest of us, Ashley updated the flyers. She was in the midst of planning a door-to-door collection in our community when she had the idea of calling area businesses to request donations. Upon calling the local Wal-Mart store first, she received an immediate offer from the manager. He invited her to set up a drive-by drop-off at his store that Friday. It would be challenging, but she enthusiastically agreed.

After calling her school to explain our beneficent plans, the principal granted her permission to be excused for that day. We were all set to begin the collection at eight o’clock Friday morning.

Then, the night before the collection was to begin, the unthinkable happened again. Another major storm, moving across Southern Tennessee, spawned a tornado that hit a small town just across our state line. It destroyed several homes and injured many. Once again, people were in need of assistance.

Arriving at the Wal-Mart store on Friday, around seven, we began setting up the collection. The Salvation Army truck arrived shortly before eight. Wal-Mart’s manager had even arranged for the local radio stations and newspaper to cover the story, and the collection took off. I have never seen a twelve-year-old work so hard.

With a poster labeled, “COLLECTING ITEMS FOR THE TORNADO VICTIMS” in hand, Ashley walked the pavement in front of Wal-Mart for twelve uninterrupted hours. She managed to collect a truckload of items and nine hundred dollars in cash for the Salvation Army and the victims of the 1998 spring storms.

As she closed the door of the truck, Ashley turned and smiled. “I worked hard, and I’m tired, but I feel great inside!”

As we stood and watched the truck drive away, she looked at me in tears. “Thanks, Mom, for helping to make this happen. If it weren’t for you, I couldn’t have pulled it off.” Wiping the tears from her cheeks, I replied, “No. Thank you for teaching me about reaching out and helping people in need.”

Denise Peebles

[EDITORS’ NOTE: For information, contact The Salvation Army Headquarters, P.O. Box 269, Alexandria, VA 22302; 703-684-5500; fax: 703-684-3478;Web site:]

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