By SHELLY WILKISON
Looking for an opportunity to serve others during their times of greatest need, Liberty Hill real estate broker Randy O’Dell reached out to the Salvation Army and volunteered to help.
After serving on committees at a local church he attended for many years, O’Dell said he came to realize two years ago that serving the Lord did not mean he needed to focus on “the church scene.”
“I had been donating to the Salvation Army for years,” he said. “It is a Christian organization, and I wanted to be associated with a group like that.”
He said the experience, which he has shared with his wife, Sharon O’Dell, has changed his life.
“I think I’ve developed a real servant’s attitude,” he said. “The focus is no longer on the church cocoon. I got out of the politics of the church and got a fresh new look at service, where we actually go do something (to help others). Getting to serve people is a blessing, and the Salvation Army is in the service business.”
Today, O’Dell is the Salvation Army’s coordinator for Disaster Services in Williamson County. He manages a portable kitchen, or canteen, that travels to disaster scenes throughout Central Texas. A volunteer himself, O’Dell coordinates and supervises about 45 others whom he calls on as needed. Most have been through training provided by the Salvation Army, and many have additional training through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Still others have earned licenses for food service.
The Salvation Army did not have a presence in Williamson County until O’Dell stepped up to volunteer. In fact, his canteen is the only unit in Texas staffed totally by volunteers. He said area volunteers do it for the blessing.
But the success of the Liberty Hill Canteen and recognition of a growing need in Williamson County has prompted the recent announcement that the Salvation Army will expand its social services to the Georgetown area this fall.
“This is big because Williamson County had nothing two years ago,” O’Dell said. “This is a big commitment.”
With the exception of the Red Kettle Campaign bell ringers stationed in Georgetown and a Shoe-In program to collect donations of shoes, most of Central Texas’ Salvation Army services have been centered in downtown Austin where the demand is great.
O’Dell estimated that the Salvation Army serves some 1,600 meals per day at its location in downtown Austin. The organization also provides a family shelter, a rehab center and thirft stores.
The immediate plan for Williamson County does not include a shelter, but O’Dell said 100 percent of the money raised here will stay here to serve those in need.
In time for the holidays this year, the Salvation Army will coordinate an Angel Tree program in Liberty Hill. O’Dell said details of the project will be forthcoming.
Based in Georgetown, the organization will provide a food bank and clothing resources. Rental assistance and vouchers for utilities will also be available to Williamson County residents, he said.
During the past year, the Liberty Hill Canteen has served thousands of meals from West to Taylor, Hutto to Smithville and Eagle Pass.
“We have been busy this year and we’ve been one of the first responders at all of these scenes,” he said.
O’Dell received a call at 11:30 p.m. the night a fertilizer plant exploded in West in April. By 3:15 a.m., Liberty Hill volunteers were in place and cooking breakfast tacos for emergency personnel. The Liberty Hill Canteen served 1,400 meals in the hours immediately following the disaster.
O’Dell said meals were prepared despite some limitations of the 1985 model portable kitchen. He said there is no oven and only two burners work on the stove. Along with the two burners, the crew makes do with an electric skillet and a microwave.
“We have gotten pretty good at breakfast tacos and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” he said. “You can feed a lot of people on peanut butter and jelly. Hydration is also a big thing.”
In addition to the call to serve in West, the Liberty Hill Canteen has also taken care of first responders and others at the scene of a three-house fire in Taylor, a 250-acre wildfire in Smithville, and in Eagle Pass where major flooding in June displaced thousands of people.
He said the response time in Williamson County is typically about two hours from the time O’Dell receives the call for help.
The Salvation Army’s Disaster Services division generally cares for the needs of emergency responders at the scene. However, O’Dell said no one is ever turned away.
“Over the years, the Salvation Army has earned a reputation for being the ones you can count on. They are reliable,” he said, adding that county dispatchers call them into service at the request of the emergency officials on the scene.
O’Dell said having a presence in Liberty Hill has benefitted the local food bank — Operation Liberty Hill. After the bulk of the work was completed in West, O’Dell used the moving van of local real estate broker Shane White to pick up unused care boxes from a warehouse in West and brought them to Operation Liberty Hill to fill a local need. He said the warehouse in West had to be vacated so the care packages were used locally.
“My goal is to raise the funds for a new canteen, which would allow us to do more, to serve more people and to travel further,” he said.
The Salvation Army is a non-profit organization that operates on charitable contributions. O’Dell said 17 percent of the monies raised go to the organization’s administration. The remainder of the funds are used to provide services across the state.
Those making donations can designate that the funds should be directed to certain projects or regions. O’Dell said donations to the Liberty Hill Canteen can be accepted.
For more information about the Salvation Army, go to www.salvationarmyaustin.org. To learn more about the Liberty Hill Canteen and find out how you can make a donation or volunteer, contact O’Dell by email at RandyDODell@cs.com.