Backcountry volunteer understands the rural drill

PINE VALLEY— The platoon sergeant, at 4-feet, 9-inches tall, surveyed a line of taller female soldiers, then locked eyes with a shorter one.

"Stand tall," she said, "even if you aren't."

Such is the style of Betty Allen, who served more than 20 years in the Women's Army Corp, retiring from the military as an E-8 master sergeant. Her mission today is with The Salvation Army, and in this army she stands tall as an exemplary volunteer.

Bonnie Stone, San Diego program director for The Salvation Army's Back Country region, said Betty is her No. 1 volunteer—a can-do woman who gets it done.

"We have five volunteers, but Betty is the main one," Stone said.

"Sarge" Allen, who never married, jokes that she is "looking for a rich man."

Joking is one of her trademarks.

Not wanting to dwell on her age—she is now 74—she explains, "old age is 15 years older than I am."

Noting her service under five different Salvation Army coordinators, she asks, "Is it something I said?"

Telling people that they need to be ready for Christ's return, she said she stays ready for the rapture of the church with a Hostess cupcake in hand.

"(Christ) could be coming when we aren't looking," she explains, "and I love chocolate."

She admits she once asked The Salvation Army for a raise.

"They said they'd double my salary," she said. "I went from nothing to double nothing."

Humor aside, Allen is remarkable. The Flynn Springs resident said she became a volunteer because she enjoys the manual labor. She loves seeing people's faces when they receive much-needed food and clothing, but the search for new families in need is difficult, especially in the secluded areas of Julian and along dirt roads in Potrero.

"Sometimes we feel like we're going all the way to 'Heck' and back to find people," she said.


Backcountry stories
The Bible encourages Christians to offer a cup of cold water in Jesus' name. Backcountry volunteers offer so much more.

Once Allen begins to recount stories of assistance to the backcountry, there's no stopping her.

"There's one lady with four children who is going to nursing school to try to help her family, but they have no food," she said. "One poor girl was beaten up, and she had a 2-year-old. She was living in a trailer with her father who had just come out of a mental institution. We got clothes and food for her."

Ninety-nine percent of the people in need in the backcountry don't have transportation or any money for gas to drive themselves to a Salvation Army thrift store, Allen said, so volunteers go to thrift stores in El Cajon and Santee to purchase needed items.

"A man wore a horrible pair of Levi's, torn at the knee," she said. "He was using duct tape to hold his pants together above the knee. We got him two pairs of trousers at our thrift store."

Volunteers also distribute more than food and clothing.

Sometimes the Pine Valley office submits a request to the San Diego headquarters to help people with utility bills, as the Army's budget allows.

"Some people don't have propane," Allen said." You can imagine what that is like when it gets cold in the mountains. One man and his three children were sleeping on the floor. We took blankets and pillows to them."


Need chaser
The volunteers' biggest challenge is finding everyone that expresses a need for help.

"It's like people disappear into the woodwork," Allen said. "I was going to stalk a school bus, just to see where all the kids go, but I thought I might get arrested!"

Allen ministers to families with great care. She often acts as a sounding board, offering friendship and objective advice.

"Sometimes common sense and an open heart will do the trick," she said.

"It's important not to degrade them or make them think they are getting 'charity.' We go to them with open arms and treat them like one of the family. We get personal; we don't treat them like a number."


Their only resource
The Pine Valley office serves 150 to 160 families each month—between 350 and 400 people.

The backcountry territory includes a triangle-like area from Descanso to Jacumba to Potrero.

Men from Freedom Ranch in Campo are tapped "for muscle" to help unload supplies, which are stored in the basement apartment of a Pine Valley volunteer who specializes in tackling Allen's "Honey Do" projects for their ministry.

Stone notes that inner-city ministries have distribution guidelines they must follow, but two bags of groceries are not enough for a food delivery in the backcountry.  

"Two bags are almost not worth the drive and time spent to get to the people," she said, "so we take groceries to last them a week. We are their only resource."

When the backcountry ministry began, the office distributed Salvation Army Thrift Store vouchers, but the volunteers soon discovered that people had no way to use them.

"They had no car or money for gas, so it was a useless piece of paper to them," she said. "So now we do it all in reverse. We take the vouchers and go to the thrift stores ourselves and stock our office the best we can. Then we distribute to needs. We try to connect the dots.

"We also buy grocery cards at Food for Less to give to those who do have transportation, but we cannot get enough of those (grocery cards)."


'Life and death' needs
Like Allen, Stone said she does not see her job as a "big deal." She grew up with volunteer work.

"It's automatic for me," she said, "but once in a while I see people's tears, and then I realize that it is life and death for them."

Allen said she loves volunteering, and plans to continue serving "until the cows come home" because she is grateful for her own lot in life.

"When I go to bed at night," she said, "I have a roof over my head. A lot of people don't. I have a warm house. A lot of people don't."

Her passion for ministry is fueled by perpetual energy.

"You know the Energizer Bunny? That's me," she said. "I just don't have a drum. Hmmm, they could maybe give me a tambourine!"

To contact The Salvation Army backcountry ministry, contact Bonnie Stone at (619) 473-0165.