By CHARLES A. BAKER III | Staff Writer
POLK COUNTY – Thursday afternoon, as many area residents enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday, the Salvation Army’s annual kettle drive will kickoff locally.
This Christmas’ kettle season will be an especially somber experience for Salvation Army of East Polk County Captain Josue Prieto and his wife, Gilda Prieto, as it will be their first kettle season without the help from longtime administrative assistant and Davenport resident Judy Kueker.
Kueker died in May of 2019.
As the Prieto family tells it, every fall for the past 19 years, Kueker was the driving force and organizer for the East Polk branch of organization, which operates out of The Salvation Army Church on U.S. Highway 17 in Winter Haven.
Kueker was especially successful at lobbying donors to sponsor many area children who would not otherwise receive a Christmas present or a Thanksgiving meal.
When Kueker passed away, other staff at the Salvation Army’s East Polk branch found themselves unable to open the donor list she kept on her computer and, because of that, they were delayed in reaching out for donations this year.
The delay only compounded the sense among volunteers who were trying to replicate Kueker’s production.
“They loved Judy,” Prieto said. “She built relationships with the community.”
Prieto said that, not long ago, half of the area’s children in need had no Angel Tree sponsor but she said she believes that God has since provided to meet some of that unmet need. Angel Trees are often found at local Publix supermarkets and other retailers, where customers can pick an “angel” off the tree, which states the age of the child and a rough idea on what he or she would like for Christmas.
Prieto referred to Judy as an “angel” who is greatly missed, especially at this time of year.
Volunteers say they are still having some difficulty finding retailers interested in posting Angel Trees, as well as volunteers to donate time staff the kettle drive this season.
In addition to helping local families in need during the holidays, The Salvation Army of East Polk County also manages a women and children’s emergency shelter in Winter Haven, which is currently assisting 27 women and children.
The emergency food pantry has an ongoing need to assist local residents who recently lost a job or suffered some other setback.
For more information on how you can donate time helping with the annual kettle drive, how to sponsor a child this Christmas, donate food at the shelter or donate slightly-used items to the store which funds ongoing operations, call the Salvation Army Church at (863) 294-7493, the social service center at (863) 291-5107 or the store at (863) 294-7493.