Linda West, community relations and development director for The Salvation Army of McHenry County.

Know Your Neighbors: Linda West

The holiday season is one of the busiest times of the year for The Salvation Army, but it’s certainly not the only time this group helps its neighbors. Meet a Crystal Lake mom who’s made service her life’s work.

Linda West, community relations and development director for The Salvation Army of McHenry County.
Linda West, community relations and development director for The Salvation Army of McHenry County.

This time of year, the “Christmas spirit” leads us to share a little more with our neighbors. But for The Salvation Army of McHenry County, every day offers a chance to help a neighbor.

Its crisis response mobile unit serves victims and first responders, and it was even dispatched to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The social services staff helps to connect the needy with services that’ll put them back on their feet.

Serving those in need has been a lifelong commitment for Linda West, community relations and development director. The people she serves are neighbors, and not just because she grew up in Crystal Lake and is raising her family there.

“We handed out nearly 1,400 backpacks this year to children, full of school supplies,” West says. “I have five children – this is near and dear to my heart. There was this beautiful little girl who came in, the mom had four children and truly had a need. This girl was 10, just like my stepdaughter. I saw this big smile as she put on her backpack, and the mom was in tears because she was so touched by it.”

As The Salvation Army launches its busiest season for fundraising and service, West is also relying on the help of hundreds of volunteers who share her passion for generating positive change.

You started your career as an educator. What drew you into the nonprofit world?

My oldest son was born with a heart defect, so at that time, I needed to be a mom and rework my schedule. You’re given opportunities in your life, and I think my son was an opportunity to meet incredible people.

The Salvation Army of McHenry County serves many emergency needs. What are a few?

First and foremost, The Salvation Army is a church, and our captain is an ordained minister. At our core, we’re a church that provides social services. We have a social worker who can help people to find what they need, whether it’s something we offer or that another agency provides.

We help people who are evicted from their homes. We have utility assistance. We help if you can’t afford your medications. When we offer emergency assistance, we want to meet your needs and help you to take that next step. We help people to make a plan, so that this emergency won’t recur next month. We don’t give handouts; we give hand-ups.

Is it better to feed a man or teach him to fish?

It’s better to teach someone what they need to know, so they can feed themselves, and then teach someone else.

The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle bell-ringing campaign is a holiday tradition. Where are the kettles this year?

We ring bells at locations throughout the county: Jewel, Walmart, Sam’s Club, Joseph’s Marketplace, Walgreens, Wisted’s in Woodstock, Sullivan’s in Marengo, to name a few. Kettles are out from mid-November until Christmas Eve, and they’re manned entirely by volunteers. We ring Monday through Saturday, generally from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. We also have counter kettles at smaller stores, like Country Donuts in Crystal Lake.

And downtown, too?

In Crystal Lake, we’ll be at Santa House on the corner of Brink and Williams, and also at the entrance of Depot Park. We’ll be in every city in McHenry County.

Where does the kettle money go?

Our goal this year is to raise $150,000. That’s made from pocket change, and all of it stays right here in McHenry County. It helps with our programs and services for the year: our emergency assistance, our after-school programs, our back-to-school backpacks. The need in our community is ever-growing and ever-changing. No matter how many people we try to reach, there’s always someone who is going to come in and need help.

And you also offer Christmas-only outreach?

One of our emergency assistance programs is the Toyland Toy Shop, where we provide Christmas presents for children and a holiday meal for families. How is that important? Children are the future, and to give children the opportunity to believe in Christmas magic is an amazing gift. Also, we have families that come in for assistance, and they’re struggling. They might not be able to put food on the table or pay the electric bill. We give them the chance to take the resources they have and focus on their family, while still having that Christmas-morning magic. In 2013, we served more than 560 families – that’s more than 1,500 people.

Your passion and enthusiasm are apparent. What drives your desire to serve?

I’ve always been a volunteer. My parents and my family were very involved in our church and school. I give so much credit to my parents for what they instilled in me growing up. Even with my own children, I teach them about volunteering. I taught them to never pass the kettle without putting change in. Everyone, at some point in their life, needs someone to give them a hand. I want to make a difference, because there have been people who helped me when I needed it most.