IT’S ALL ‘RELATIVE’
The Salvation Army’s Support of a Family Member Sparked This Volunteer’s Passion for “Doing the Most Good”
For Cara Ottilio-Cooper, volunteering for The Salvation Army isn’t just a charitable calling — it’s a family obligation, one with roots that reach back generations.
“My great-grandfather suddenly died when my grandmother was three years old and left my great-grandmother a widow,” Cara, a former business owner and current stay-at-home mom, explained. “And she had six kids. So The Salvation Army stepped in and helped them because she’s now this single mom with six kids, and she needed help.”
Cara’s grandmother never forgot what The Salvation Army did for her family. Nor did Cara. Not that she had a choice.
“The Salvation Army is such a fantastic organization. So that drives me to continue doing what I do with The Salvation Army — [and] because Grandma told me to!” she laughed.
ENTER THE ANGEL TREE
A New Jersey native and current New York City resident, Cara began her volunteer work for The Salvation Army 13 years ago, when she introduced the Christmas Angel Tree program to the New Jersey fitness centers she owned. “We would maybe help like 40 kids or something like that, which is still good, I guess,” she said.
Some years later, when she sold her business, she brought Angel Tree to her 400-unit apartment building in lower Manhattan. With “so many people in a small place,” and the building staff on board, the program, in Cara’s words, “exploded.” In the first year, her building’s Angel Tree generated enough toys to serve 75 children. Most recently, in 2016, they were up to 121 kids served, while also sponsoring 10 Adopt-a-Families.
Reaping the spoils of Cara’s efforts currently is The Salvation Army’s New York Temple Community Center, located on West 14th Street in Manhattan, which Cara found by searching online. In addition to Angel Tree, she helps with the actual holiday toy assortment and distribution at New York Temple, while occasionally volunteering at the center’s soup kitchen. Meanwhile, back at her apartment building, she partnered with a Salvation Army Thrift Store to bring a household-item donation bin into her building, which she and her neighbors try to keep as full as possible.
It was great, heart-warming work — but something was missing. And Cara knew exactly what it was.
A YEAR-ROUND INVESTMENT
“I only volunteer with the soup kitchen during Christmastime because I’m here working,” she observed. “I said, ‘I gotta get back to The Salvation Army and help them throughout the year,’ and then I find myself so busy with stuff to do that I don’t really get back.”
But now that’s changing. Beginning in March, New York Temple Commanding Officer Lieutenant Aline Fernandes started an advisory committee and invited Cara and her husband to participate. It proved just the impetus Cara needed to get involved beyond the holidays on a more regular basis.
“In March, we’re going to be starting — Lieutenant Aline will be starting — a new committee, the advisory committee,” she said, “and my husband and I will meet monthly and we will do whatever they need us to do. . . . It took Lieutenant Aline to form a board and make [me] come in here once a month and commit to something for me to actually put it on my calendar!”
What makes all these efforts doubly gratifying is the caliber of people Cara has worked with at New York Temple. “Everyone here is fantastic,” she said. “They’re so nice, and I love them. They’ve become my friends and I keep in touch with them throughout the year, even though I’m not here as much as I should be — but now I will be!”
Though she’s the first to admit that the volunteer work can be physically and emotionally draining, Cara finds the end results worth every drop of sweat equity, especially during the holidays. “Watching that truck filled every single inch with toys until you can’t put another thing in,” she said, “and then you close the doors and it drives away, and that’s only your first truck and you’ve got five more trucks to go — I mean, it’s so cool! I really feel like Santa!”
“My great-grandmother was served by The Salvation Army and my grandmother has always said, ‘Help The Salvation Army.’ And now here I am, you know, ‘100 years later,’ helping The Salvation Army!”
All in the family.
Volunteer Cara Ottilio-Cooper (left), with New York Temple Commanding Officer Lieutenant Aline Fernandes.