LEOMINSTER — The annual Salvation Army volunteer appreciation dinner was held at the Leominster-Fitchburg Lodge of Elks on North Main Street Thursday evening, where nearly 200 people including state and Fitchburg/Montachusett Salvation Army staff, local officials, fire and police, community members, and others gathered to pay tribute to those who selflessly serve others.
“This is not about the Salvation Army at this point, it’s about you,” said Salvation Army Envoy Lynette Valentine-Warren to the dedicated volunteers.
Valentine-Warren and her team orchestrated the event, where a Salvation Army Wall of Fame banner showcasing photos of the volunteers hung over a red-carpet photo opportunity spot. Attendees noshed on a feast cooked by longtime Salvation Army volunteer and Advisory Board member Dave MacDonald and other volunteers. The meal included roast beef, mashed potatoes, green beans, pasta, salad and a variety of sweets.
When Valentine-Warren spoke to the crowd gathered she noted the many organizations, individuals and others who help the Salvation Army help people, including the Fitchburg, Leominster and Lunenburg fire and police departments, armies of volunteers, and countless others who have stepped up to lend a hand with the organization’s humanitarian mission of helping those in the community in need.
Valentine-Warren said that they are helping the 24 families displaced by the two fires in Fitchburg over the weekend and will hold an event highlighting available resources on Wednesday from 1 to 6 p.m. at the Fitchburg Senior Center at 14 Wallace Avenue.
“We will be working with all the agencies, MEMA, Emergency Management, taking care of the families,” she said. “Everybody pulling together.”
Fitchburg Mayor Stephen DiNatale, Police Chief Ernest Martineau and other Police Department members, and City Councilor Sam Squailia attended the appreciation dinner.
“When you start talking about how important Salvation Army is to the city of Fitchburg and the general community it sounds trite and insincere but it’s not,” DiNatale said before presenting a certificate of appreciation to Valentine-Warren. “As the mayor of the city of Fitchburg when I need help with certain events one of the first people that I always call is Lynette — and the important piece is that she’s always answering the phone. We couldn’t function without the Salvation Army.”
DiNatale gave a shoutout to MacDonald, who was busy shuttling between the kitchen and greeting guests, including members of his own family.
“I love you Dave,” DiNatale said to MacDonald. “He’s at everything.”
MacDonald, a Lunenburg resident who has been heavily involved with the Salvation Army for 36 years, received a standing ovation from the crowd after he said a few words.
“I’ve got to thank every one of you that have helped us,” MacDonald said. “Thank you for coming tonight and remember we are proud of you.”
Kathleen Leonard and Deborah Maki, both longtime Salvation Army “senior soldier” volunteers from Leominster, were all smiles at the event. Maki brought her 9-year-old granddaughter Ellia Rivera with her, a young woman who often volunteers alongside her, and together they helped set up the tables beforehand and cleaned up afterwards.
“She just loves helping out,” Maki said of her granddaughter, adding that they assisted with putting together 250 Thanksgiving food boxes last November that were distributed to community residents in Fitchburg, Leominster and Lunenburg.
Both Salvation Army Corps Sgt. Major Herb White and Major Marcus Jugenheimer, general secretary for the Salvation Army Massachusetts Division, said a prayer at the dinner.
“We pray that you will strengthen us and direct us to do your service,” White said.
Valentine-Warren called up many volunteers to the stage to be recognized and presented them with plaques, including Leominster resident Larry McNeil, who has rung the red kettle bell around the holidays at the Mall at Whitney Field in Leominster for many years.
Salvation Army Advisory Board member Daniel Cunningham recalled that when he was growing up “we had nothing.” He said one Christmas they had a knock on the door and “a bunch of gentlemen came in” and gave his family a tree, food and presents, from members of Lions and Rotary clubs “backed by the Salvation Army.”
Fitchburg television personality Barbara Foster of “Barbara & You” fame addressed the crowd, saying she thinks highly of those who volunteer to help.
“You are all kind and generous people, the true gift is a portion of yourself,” Foster said. “I respect and admire you so much.”
Valentine-Warren showed a video that depicted a child dropping coins into one of the recognizable Salvation Army red kettles. The young boy peeks inside the kettle and sees things going on in the community, people helping other people.
“Want do you think about when you think about the Salvation Army? Red kettles, soup kitchens, thrift stores? It is more than that,” Valentine-Warren said. “It’s the first chance for a child who otherwise would not have one … and a bottle of water for a weary firefighter. What did he see in there? Hope.”
Centerpieces on each table at the dinner featured toy emergency response vehicles and pictures of dozens of volunteers out and about in the community doing good.
“The most important thing every one of those pictures generates is hope,” Valentine-Warren said. “I see a community embracing those in need.”