Lt. Colonel Ralph Bukiewicz knows a thing or two about people in need.
He was one of them.
"Our family was very poor," Bukiewicz recalled, sitting in front of a Christmas Tree at the Salvation Army's Divisional Headquarters in Chicago. "Every year at Christmas time, I knew I was always invited to the Salvation Army."
Bukiewicz said that as a child he always knew that meant a toy under the tree and, as he recalled, "a big red apple." But he also knew that the Army's generosity would extend to his parents, both of whom were blind.
"They would always provide a box of groceries for our family at Christmas and periodically throughout the year, usually about the time we were struggling to make ends meet as a family."
In June, Bukiewicz took over as Divisional Commander of the Salvation Army's Chicagoland operations. Joining him there was his wife of 30 years, Susan Bukiewicz, who views the mission from a slightly different perspective. She grew up in a family where both of her parents were Salvation Army officers, and where all four of her siblings have joined the Army's ranks as well.
"We would have been the family providing the toys under Ralph's tree," she says. "Our ministry together is even more powerful because both of us have our own story to tell, of the recipient and the giver."
That ministry is Chicago's largest provider of services in the city's neediest communities. Last Christmas alone, the Army served more than 112,000 people. It has long been one of the world's most trusted charities, where donors know that 83 percent of their dollars go to help people in need.
"We want to make sure we are always on that front line of need," said Bukiewicz. "We've made the commitment. We've made sure we're there every Christmas, and we try to identify as many people as possible in our neighborhoods who need to be served by the Salvation Army."
But donations are running short this year, as much as 13 percent below this same period last year. That shortfall represents about a half million dollars in the Army's $12 million Christmas kettle campaign. It's a period of the year which represents about one-third of the organization's annual operating budget.
"Now, we're trusting," Bukiewicz says, declaring that the Salvation Army will continue to serve its needy clients, recession or not. ""We're going about serving this week and next week through Christmas. If we keep putting people first, that's always been part of the Salvation Army's approach to things. People are the reason we exist."
"If we keep our services foremost, and do everything that we can to make sure that we're accountable to the community and the donors who have stepped forward and given, that God will indeed provide exactly what we need."