Small group ministry at Salem UMC: 'We are moving mountains'

By Christian Vischi*
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If Donna Alexander had her way, she would have been fighting side by side with U.S. forces against the North Vietnamese. But she was only 12, and the branches of the U.S. military have never relaxed the minimum age quite that far.

But that didn't mean there wasn't something she could do. So she started sending packages to the soldiers.
A photo from the 2012 Blessing of the Bikes, an event of the Hugs for Heroes ministry that supports veterans and their families. Click here to see more photos.
Decades later, she is still serving active and retired military personnel through a small group ministry at the Salem United Methodist Church (Adirondack District): Hugs for Heroes.
Hugs for Heroes SUMC is not affiliated with the national organization that was founded in 2004. Alexander said she has been using the name since long before 2004. When the national organization called to strongly discourage her group from using the name, she told them she had history on her side. She also told them she was affiliated with the Salem UMC.
"'Oh, you are a church group?'" she said the male voice asked her. "Oh, sorry. Bye."
In the news
Hugs for Heroes is coordinated by Alexander. Lately, it has been in the news for its efforts − in large part due to Alexander's legwork − in helping to return Donald Armstrong stateside for medical care.
According to the Glens Falls Post Star and the Albany Times Union, Armstrong had traveled to India for an experimental stem cell treatment. When he contracted pneumonia during the trip his condition deteriorated, but Air India refused return passage to New York. That's when Alexander stepped in.
The Rev. Deborah Earthrowl, pastor at Salem UMC, said the procedure in India was not very successful and to make matters worse, Air India was requiring a medical person to accompany Armstrong back to the U.S.
"So (Alexander) put it out on Facebook," Rev. Earthrowl said, and within three hours Salem UMC parishioner Penny Spiezio saw the post and encouraged her husband, Mark, the former mayor of Cambridge and captain of the Cambridge Valley Rescue Squad, to go.
"That was something that was far beyond our scope of imaging, but with God's help and truly getting a prayer chain going over the phone one day," it all came together, Alexander said. "I said this can't be so... but within three hours I received a phone call that said we were on. The travel agent said, 'I have no idea why we are on, but we are on.' I said, 'I know why, just look up.'"
Although Armstrong's oxygen stopped working on the plane and his condition at the Albany Medical Center Hospital is listed as serious, Rev. Earthrowl said he is doing fairly well.
Between air travel, hotel accommodations, food and more, Alexander estimates this mission to bring Armstrong back will cost Hugs for Heroes approximately $6,000. But the ministry has performed other large-scale projects in the past.
A couple of years ago they were told about the widow of a World War II veteran who lived in a home without a furnace. They purchased the furnace and arranged for the installation. Every Dec. 25 they provide a full Christmas spread for 15 families, including gifts, the tree, decorations, dinner and all the trimmings.
A group effort
Hugs for Heroes has a very dedicated group that ranges from six to 12 volunteers who attend regular meetings. But they are not solitary in their efforts.
"The congregation is 199 percent behind this," Alexander said. "We are so well supported by the congregation and the community... not the just the church community but the community of Salem; all of the churches in the community are helping us."
The residents, businesses and organizations in the surrounding communities of Cambridge, Greenwich and Shushan have been very receptive of and generous to Hugs for Heroes, even some that wouldn't traditionally be thought of as welcoming a Christian-based organization into its halls.
"This has been wonderful and it gives us a (unique) opportunity," Alexander said. "We are invited to schools." Right up front, before she agrees to speak, she said she tells school administrators that she cannot talk about patriotism without mentioning God.
"I have never been denied the chance to talk about God in public school, not once," she said.
The group also has other key allies on its side, including the Pentagon, congressmen Michael McNulty (retired) and Chris Gibson (19th Congressional District), and Senator Kathleen Marchione (43rd Senate District). "They come to our events and we even have their home phone numbers, their home numbers," Alexander said. She joked they may be regretting that.
Moving mountains
Funding for care packages they send to the troops, along with projects like the widow's furnace purchase and Armstrong's travel, come from generous donors and several events throughout the year.
Last fall, the American Legion in Cambridge inaugurated a spaghetti dinner fundraiser, raising more than $1,500; the Knights of Columbus did the prep, cooking and clean-up. Every fall, Hugs for Heroes hosts "Go Jump in the Lake," a sponsor-type of event at Washington County Park at Lake Lauderdale. Rev. Earthrowl leads a Blessing of the Bikes (motorcycles) every year that draws a very health crowd, regardless of the weather, Alexander said, and the riders are quite generous.
"We are still just on a shoestring budget, but we are moving mountains," Alexander said. Last year, she estimates Hugs for Heroes raised approximately $9,000 and spent about $7,000, carrying over the balance.
Another example of moving mountains is removing doubt from flood victims of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee. Alexander had a 22-foot long, 8-foot wide by 9-foot tall enclosed trailer parked at the church. It was loaded with sheets, clothes, blankets, toiletries, feminine products, water, hand sanitizer, brushes, pails, sunscreen and diapers − many items were donated by businesses in Salem − and driven to Breezy Point and Rockaway Point on Long Island. From the Tappan Zee Bridge to their destination they had a police escort, thanks to the efforts of her son.
When asked where the items came from, Alexander had an immediate response: "God is leading us and we are following."
"The folks that are involved in this definitely feel blessed as they offer these blessing to others," Rev. Earthrowl said. "Over and over they express with tears of joy how touched they are by this. ... The real basis of it is to remind people of God's love in all times of their life, in all places."
*Christian Vischi is the communications associate for the Upper New York Annual Conference.