New ‘vision’ at rehabilitation center
Majors Jerry and Vangie O’Neil are in uncharted waters. After more than 20 years of leading five Salvation Army worship and service centers across the Midwest – and developing a stellar reputation in the process – they’ve been tapped to lead an entirely different animal: The Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center in downtown Minneapolis.
At the service centers, the majors juggled things like operating food shelves and hot meal programs, coordinating bell ringers, managing youth activities, and many other services.
At the rehabilitation center, they have two very different responsibilities: manage a residential treatment program that serves up to 130 men, and help oversee the operation of 11 Salvation Army Stores in the Twin Cities and one in St. Cloud (watch video).
Although the majors are in unfamiliar territory, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is an exciting position to be in,” said Major Jerry. “The bad thing is we know nothing about the system. But the good thing is we know nothing about the system. We’re not locked into any ‘this is the way we’ve always done things’ situation.”
Added Major Vangie: “We’re not here to change the program. We’re here to keep it going in the right direction.”
Major Jerry sat down with the SalvationArmyNorth.org team to explain his roots, management style, plans to relocate the center, and much more.
How did you come to know The Salvation Army?
Through an after-school program in South Minneapolis, where I grew up. I was the oldest of nine kids raised by a single mom – and not nine good kids. (Chuckles.) I fell in love with The Salvation Army. The men there took me to father-and-son banquets. I went to Salvation Army summer camps. I learned to play an instrument, which was a great self-esteem builder. The Salvation Army nurtured me.
I knew at a very early age that Salvation Army officership was for me. I went into the Air Force after high school, and after that I joined The Salvation Army. I became an officer at age 25.
(Major Vangie is a fifth-generation Salvationist, meaning everybody from her great-great grandparents down to her own parents served as Salvation Army officers.)
You’ve used the phrase “new vision, new direction” to describe your plans at the rehabilitation center. Please explain.
It’s a new set of eyes. My wife and I, our niche has always been revision. Some people can go somewhere and start something from scratch, but that’s not us. We take what’s already there and make it work.
This isn’t necessarily about us coming in here and creating new things. It’s about providing the best quality programs and services we can. It’s not OK to just get by. At The Salvation Army, we use the words Doing the Most Good. It’s one thing to say it. It’s another to do it.
Of course, none of this happens just because of the administration. It happens because we have a great team assembled. Our staff is phenomenal.
What is your management style?
I’m not interested in micromanaging, but I am interested in being hands-on. I’m interested in being part of what goes on in the day-to-day operations here.
Is that why you and your family volunteered at a Salvation Army Store all day on the 4th of July?
We try to lead by example by not expecting people to do anything we wouldn’t do ourselves. We couldn’t ask for people to volunteer and then not volunteer ourselves.
What will be different about leading a rehabilitation center vs. a worship and service center?
The great thing about this kind of work is the amount of time we get to spend with folks. At the service centers, we helped people with things like utility bills and groceries, but we never got to see the end result. In this setting, we see a guy come in at rock bottom – most people don’t come here until they’ve hit bottom – and we get to stay with them for six months, nine months, a year.
What a phenomenal thing to see, and what a great thing it is for us to say we have people on our staff who are graduates of the program. Many are prominent members in key management positions. They understand the program because they’ve been through it.
Salvation Army Store sales in the Twin Cities have increased $8 million in the past four years, going from $6 million in 2009 to $14 million last year. What’s next?
We want to get to $20 million or $22 million. It’s there. We just need to collect more donations and open more stores. The more money we make, the more people we can help.
To get where we want to go, we must be good stewards. We have an obligation to our donors when they drop off that couch or that bag of clothes. They have a choice whether to give to The Salvation Army or someplace else.
We’d like to put out 30 more collection bins (pictured) in the next month. We have 160 in place around the Twin Cities right now. For every 100 bins we set out, we collect enough donations to open a $1.5 million store.
This is also about economic development. Every new store we open employs 20 to 30 people. There’s economic impact everywhere we go. The rehabilitation center and the stores are completely self-sufficient; we don’t take government money or grants.
For years, there’s been talk of relocating the rehabilitation center and the store attached to it. Is this still on the horizon?
We’d like to have this done in the next five years. We’re open to anywhere, whether it’s new construction or remodeling an existing facility. It just needs to be the right price, the right place, and the right fit, with room to grow in the future.
What are your goals?
To have the best program we can have, and be the best stewards we can be. Jesus was quite clear when He said if you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.
My wife and I made a commitment to the mission and ministry of The Salvation Army, and ultimately to God, trusting Him to take us where He wants us to be. So far, He’s never disappointed.
If you or somebody you know is suffering from addiction and needs help, contact the rehabilitation center at 612-332-5855 or learn more online. The program is free.
To support the program, donate your gently used clothing, housewares, furniture and other items.