Last year, the Salvation Army helped one in 20 Canadians — in Prince Rupert the organization helped one in four residents.
Fifteen years ago, when Captain Gary Sheils and his wife, Captain Nancy, were posted to serve on the North Coast, the need was so great, they had to expand the soup kitchen to the hall on Grenville Court.
“Within four or five months we were serving 275 meals every day the need was that great,” said Captain Sheils. The food bank went from serving 30-40 families a month to 325 families a month. The need was just absolutely horrendous. It’s still high but nowhere near that level.”
In 2002, with the closure of the pulp mill and the downturn in the fishing industry, the need for the Salvation Army’s services soared, and when the Sheils arrived from Houston, they put in countless hours of service with a skeleton staff until the divisional headquarters paid a visit and increased funding to hire more help.
The staff increase has remained since then, with three in the soup kitchen, two in the food bank, one for the shelter, five at the thrift store — the only change is that the captains are leaving.
At 70-years-old, Captain Sheils said it’s the right time to retire.
“I will miss the people. Nancy and I have said to each other, 19 years ago we left Ontario, family and our church family and it was really difficult to leave, but we were called to come out here. Here we are 19 years later, leaving what we considered to be our church family, our community family and it’s going to be so very hard to do,” he said.
A guitar sits in his office. In another chapter of Captain Sheils’ life he used to play in bars to pay his rent, now he plays Christian music on Sunday mornings to his congregation, and he also plays for himself.
Gary and Nancy grew up in Ontario, where they were involved in the Salvation Army church. In 1997, a job opportunity came up in Houston, B.C. to look after a camp, a thrift store with the possibility of starting a church. They answered the call, leaving family and friends behind.
“One of the sacrifices we made was coming out to B.C. and leaving family behind in Ontario. We’ve missed our grandkids, they’re growing up. We go back every couple of years but that’s not much,” he said. The couple have three daughters, four sons and five grandchildren.
While in Houston, the Sheils took an on-the-job officer training program in Terrace and after spending a few years as commissioned auxiliary captains in Houston, they were posted to a poverty struck Prince Rupert.
“It was tough. There was a lot of need,” he said.
But the support from the community has always been what Captain Sheils called phenomenal. From the second Christmas to date, the Salvation Army has raised $150,000 to $175,000 every year in the city.
“I can’t say how grateful my wife and I are for that support.”
Although it’s usually Gary’s face in the newspaper holding onto oversized cheques for the organization, he said he and his wife are a team. Where he is weaker, she is stronger, and together they are the heart of the Salvation Army in the city.
Captain Gary Sheils said his day is varied, depending on the need. He does his best to plow through the administrative work so he can keep his door open.
“As much as possible, although sometimes that is difficult, to keep my door open so the 125 people who come through this building in a day, if they need somebody to talk to, then I’m available,” he said.
He listens to those dealing with death, addiction, homelessness or any other troubling situation the people in this community struggle with.
What he finds the most heartbreaking is those people he just can’t help.
“The heartbreaking times are when people are just so trapped in an addiction and so lost and try as you may they’re just not ready for any type of help and that is really hard,” he said, adding that he never stops trying because one day he hopes they may change.
With all his selfless service, he does make time for himself to clear the mind. In the golfing season, he carves out a chunk of his day to play at least nine holes at the course. His wife plays as well.
Sheils said he is grateful for the team that has built the Prince Rupert Salvation Army to become what it is today. On July 23, Lt. Sabrina and Greg Silvey will be taking over the Sheils’ duties.
The captains return to Ontario on June 22, and his retirement party is on Saturday, June 17 at 1 p.m. at the Salvation Army Church.