It has been quite a life's journey for Major John Stennett and his wife, Major Candy Stennett, corps officers with the Salvation Army's Boise operations. Each traveled far and wide in their formative years before they met in Hawaii in 1986.
"Our first dates were with 20 teenagers," said Candy. She was a youth minister and he was a Marine stationed on Oahu.
The daughter of successful restaurateurs, Candy was 9 years old when she first set foot into a Salvation Army church.
"I told a friend that I would go once," said Candy. "What I really wanted was to be an actress."
Indeed, she was a child actress, performing in television commercials, network series that filmed on the island and in a Japanese film. She traveled with an acting troupe called Covenant Players across the United States but found her way back to her Hawaiian home in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, John was leading a very different life. The son of Southern Baptist missionaries, he saw devastation firsthand when an earthquake hit his home of Guatemala City.
"I followed my father into towns that were completely demolished," he remembered. "We brought food, medicine and made cinder blocks to help rebuild homes."
Years later in El Salvador, his family lived through a raging civil war.
"Shootings, bombings. We were in danger many times, but God protected us," said John.
Ultimately, John enlisted in the Marines, where he was deployed twice to Japan and a Marine Corps air station in Hawaii, where he met Candy. They have two college-aged daughters, both following in their mother's footsteps: studying theater. One of their daughters, Jessica, recently graduated from the University of Arizona in Tucson and was singled out as an "outstanding senior."
Have you ever performed on stage with your daughters?
Candy: We were never in shows at the same time. They've been in a couple of shows and the Musical Theatre of Idaho was kind enough to cast me in The Secret Garden, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, where I played a nun.
You must love Guys and Dolls (which prominently features the Salvation Army).
Candy: Funny enough, I've never been in that show.
John: I truly enjoy her voice.
Candy: I'm an actress who sings, not a singer who acts.
Have you been in the Salvation Army the same number of years?
John: Yes. Almost 20 years: two years of training, officers for more than 15 years.
Walk me through the ranks of the Salvation Army.
John: In training, you're a cadet. When you graduate, you're a lieutenant for five years, then you're a captain for 10 years and then you become a major. In administrative roles, they have lieutenant colonels, colonels, commissioners and one general in London, England, the international headquarters.
You first came to Idaho in 2000.
John: Yes, to run the Salvation Army operations in Nampa. We were there until 2005. Then we were in Los Angeles for four years.
Did you have any say in coming back to Idaho?
John: When we were in California, all we did was talk about Idaho. I think that helped.
Candy: They line your skills up with what a community needs and then they pray about it.
John: When we were in Nampa, we were pretty well informed about Boise. We knew what the situation was and what needed to be done.
What's the biggest difference since you came to Boise in 2009?
John: When we first arrived, the Boise operation was in debt for probably 20 years.
Was it significant?
John: About $200,000. We've been out of debt for two years now.
Most businesses couldn't achieve that kind of comeback. You must have made some dramatic changes.
John: A lot of cuts, and we immediately got out into the community to do fundraising.
Did you refine the mission?
John: We used to have families in a shelter facility in Boise's North End. We now put families in apartments all around town.
How many families might you serve in that program?
John: We have 13 right now and we would like to get back up to 20. Because we don't have a facility, we're no longer limited by how many we can serve.
Candy: We have a wonderful case manager to encourage and train the families to help them get back on their feet.
Let's talk about the Marian Pritchett School (for pregnant teens and unwed mothers).
Candy: The Salvation Army has had such a unique partnership with the Boise School District since 1964.
But the school came very close to shutting its doors in 2010, when the Idaho Legislature zeroed out its budget.
John: We thought the program might have to close. But the school district said it wanted to continue, and we were thrilled to continue our support. We have on-site child care and off-site child care. We graduate 16 to 18 girls from there every year, but there are about 35 more girls who have benefited from the program that also graduate from traditional high schools every year.
How many employees do you have?
John: About 15 full-time. Another 20 part-timers.
And your volunteers?
How many bell ringers do you have in the community this week?
John: It's hard to say, because we have entire clubs alongside our kettles.
Candy: I would be able to give you a number. It's several thousand.
How many kettles are in the community during the holiday season?
John: 40 kettles per shift, two shifts every day, six days a week.
It wasn't too long ago that Salvation Army kettles were everywhere at Christmas, but that's not the case anymore. When did that change?
John: There were so many groups who wanted to do the same thing. I remember once, in California, the Walmart would have four groups on one side of an entry way and four more groups on the other side, and that was at every entrance. Shoppers would put their heads down when they walked in and walked out.
So where are you allowed to ring now?
John: Our national headquarters secures national permission and we contact local retailers. Walmart continues to welcome us. Fred Meyer is fantastic, the Boise Co-op, Walgreens, Cabela's. And Albertsons allows us outside their stores the week before Christmas.
What is your revenue stream from the kettles?
John: About 10 percent of our annual budget.
Candy: We even have the opportunity to hire a few of the people to work with the kettles. It's a great opportunity to put some money in their pockets.
John: We're providing about 100 jobs during the Christmas season. We would much rather provide some work than just a handout.
And your big toy and food distribution is set for the few days before Christmas.
John: It will be Wednesday, Dec. 19, through Friday, Dec. 21. It's amazing to watch the families come through. They work with our volunteers to pick up toys for their children. Then, they pick up a food box and a turkey, ham or chicken.
Candy: And this year, the Wish Book people will hand out some great new books so that moms and dads can give some books to the kids.
John: We have almost 1,500 families signed up to receive the donations this year.
Candy: That's about 7,000 persons in Ada County.
John: And that's in addition to another 114 families that will receive toys and food through our Adopt-A-Family program.
It has been an interesting year as a community and a nation. We hope we're coming out of a recession, many of us have disagreed with one another politically and we're at odds with our planet due to climate change. Where do we find hope or optimism?
Candy: The themes really don't change too much each year. We want to focus on our opportunity for peace.
John: And hope. And joy.
Candy: I don't think that ever changes. We receive them from different places, depending on where we are in life.
But do you acknowledge that this time of year there is an inordinate amount of loneliness because of some personal loss or unfinished business, either spiritually or with their family?
John: We do what we do, not because we're good people, not because it's a rewarding feeling. God's love compels us to do this. And a large part of that is reminding people that God hasn't forgotten you.
Candy: I know some of those people feel distance, and they have a hard time looking through clouds of despair. I know what it's like to be in a room of 200 people that are happy, yet I feel more alone than I did when I left my house. For those people who feel distanced, I want to say that God isn't as far away as you think he is.