Sheila New, a major and the Waxahachie Salvation Army Director of Social Services, sat in a pew, surrounded by her grandchildren singing century-old hymns in honor of National Salvation Army Week.
Her 30 years as an officer still vivid in her thoughts.
Shortly after the tragic attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, New and her husband, both ministers, were summoned for a month-long mission to relieve other Salvation Army officers around New York City. They arrived Christmas Day, three months after two planes crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Upon arrival, there was still so much to pick up, so many bodies to recover. New was assigned to “the pit” where destruction was overwhelming.
“When they would find the bodies, people would you know — it was noisy there were cranes, work going on and when they would find a body, they would blow this whistle. Dead silence would fall, and they would bring out a blanket or a flag and cover the body. Whoever was assigned for the day at that time, when we were there it was my husband — we would pray with the men and counsel them.”
In the evenings, New would report to a large tent. She joked how the officers referenced the area as “The Taj Mahal.” There was nothing luxurious about the space but in comparison to its surroundings it was five stars.
First responders entered the tent, and New would feed them, debrief and council the men and women who spent the last 24 hours moving debris, trying to save lives. The Salvation Army officers worked long hours as well.
“It was very stressful and emotional as well. We dealt with the firemen that would come out of the pit each night,” New elaborated.
New shared that even 17 years later people contact her on a regular basis asking for disaster response feedback and checking on her health after exposure to the disaster zone.
New then fast-forwarded to 2005, the day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. She was primarily tasked with feeding survivors from a canteen, a mobile food pantry.
New and her husband were stationed in Baton Rouge because running water and electricity were nonexistent at the time in New Orleans. She worked in a large church preparing meals and would transport the food in the canteens to the disaster zone. She recalled people in droves loading into buses once she arrived.
“We went and heard their stories. It was kind of scary too. There were bodies everywhere,” New recalled. “The men would get in boats and would get people from their houses. They didn’t want to remove the bodies during the day because there were so many women and children seeing it. The men would sink the bodies and tag a pole. Then, at night, they would go back and get the body.”
According to a Dallas Morning News article, the number of deaths affiliated with Hurricane Katrina is unknown to this day. But, the total of fatalities is estimated at 1,800. In comparison, Hurricane Harvey resulted in the death of 31 people.
Through prayer and discussing the disturbing experiences with fellow officers, New maintained a healthy mindset over the years.
“When you’ve had to experience it you share the camaraderie of what took place in your life. I don’t think it’s any different than going to war,” New emphasized. “There are certain things you don’t forget — like the smell of a dead body. You can’t get that odor out of your head and things you’ve seen.”
SURVIVING THE HORROR
In the midst of horrifying tragedy, New never second-guessed her duty in The Salvation Army.
New is now a retired officer and has resided in Waxahachie for the past five years. It was the prominent Salvation Army community that brought New and her husband to Ellis County. With Camp Hoblitzelle located in Midlothian, familiar faces, as well as her family, surround her.
In October 2017, she accepted the position as the director of social services at the Waxahachie office.
“Just helping other people. It’s more of a calling than a career. You pray and ask God, 'What should I do with my life?’ And he brought my husband and me together,” she said.
In The Salvation Army, married couples are either both active or inactive. Her husband even left The Salvation Army to marry New. Once married, she too dedicated herself to serving others.
By the time they both officially retired as officers, New had 30 years of experience — her husband had 40.
When reflecting on the refuge and services, she concluded her involvement shaped her into the person she is today.
“It’s made me be a very patient person — same thing in the military, hurry up and wait,” News said. “They would give you an assignment, and then you wait for things to fall into place. Even if you’re ministering to people and they don’t want to hurry and come to Christ like you want them to.”
Now serving the role as director of social services she councils local clients and helps them get back on their feet whether it is paying off a bill before eviction or lending a listening ear.
“I don’t always have the help they need,” New admitted. “But they come in here and sit, tell me their story. And, sometimes when I can’t even help them, they thank me, and they sound so appreciative.”
New prays with her clients, which is not standard practice for social service workers paid by the state. In the short time, New has been in the office, she has heard stories “that devastate my heart.”
She described a young man whose head practically hit the doorway when walking in. He requested help paying his electric bill. The following day he underwent neck surgery. When New called to verify the procedure, she found out the gentleman had throat cancer, which meant his vocal cords would be removed.
The man would never speak again. New explained how the man wanted to get the last of the bills paid off to help his wife through the tough time. It was at that moment New’s voice began to crack.
“I prayed with him, and I cry with him sometimes,” she added. “And then another lady came in that day after him, and her husband had back surgery, and he was a cameraman for a local sports station. He came out of surgery paralyzed. And, I didn’t expect that.”
New reached across her desk where her clients sat and grabbed a tissue.
“The hardest part of this job is that we have a very small budget. And, I can only spend a little over $800 a month. So, two weeks, three weeks, I’m out of funds. It’s hard to tell people no,” New shared.
The Salvation Army in Waxahachie serves all of Ellis County — New stretches $800 in one month for a community of more than 160,000 people. She is forced to weigh other people’s problems and prioritize needs.
Whether New is in the field praying for victims of disaster or lending aid to her local community behind a desk, the impact she makes is substantial.
National Salvation Army Week was May 14 — 20, 2018.
To make an impact in the local Salvation Army community in Ellis County, people can by calling 972-937-7727.
Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450