Harrison Carter's descent into aimlessness began with his first swig of beer at age 11. By the time he was 25, he was a functioning alcoholic, drinking heavily but able to work service jobs that kept his mortgage paid. But in 2002, as his reliance on alcohol deepened, Harrison began missing work and his bills piled up. He soon lost his northern Virginia condo and moved to the streets.
Ashamed and frustrated, he distanced himself from his family and frequented a Salvation Army day shelter.
That's where Harrison met Major Bobby Lancaster, then co-leader of the Fairfax County area. Lancaster had come to the shelter looking for (paid) workers to ring bells for the Christmas kettle. He selected Harrison and one other man for the job.
When he became leader of the Richmond, Va., Salvation Army city command, Lancaster tracked down Harrison and his friend and offered them seasonal work again.
That December 2003 opportunity was the beginning of an emotional, physical, and spiritual transformation for Harrison. He moved into the Salvation Army's Richmond shelter and was assigned a bell-ringer post in front of a local retail store.
The shifts were long and blustery cold, but kind strangers warmed Harrison's heart. One morning a passerby gave him a scarf; another day, a knit cap. Store customers regularly bought him cups of hot cocoa. Their generosity, coupled with the fact that he was working to help children have a brighter Christmas, encouraged Harrison to change his own life.
"I could see that Harrison really wanted to make more out of his life and become a more productive citizen," says Lancaster, who recently was appointed to serve in the Salvation Army's Washington, D.C., Division. "I began to work with him."
Atop Harrison's list of goals was sobriety.
By the end of the holiday season, he was visiting weekly with a counselor and attending Alcoholics Anonymous. Lancaster tapped Harrison to clean Salvation Army offices several hours a week. He soon hired Harrison as the full-time janitor of the Army's Boys & Girls Club.
Harrison also landed work as a part-time dishwasher for Freedom House, a homeless services program that uses the Salvation Army's kitchen to provide free hot meals. Harrison thrived; that is, until a new relationship led him astray.
Theo Woodson, a Freedom House employee, decided to intervene.
"I knew he was struggling and needed some guidance," Woodson said. "People see something in you that you don't see in yourself. That's where the hope is."
Harrison had failed to stop drinking before, but this time Woodson, Lancaster, and others challenged him.
"I had a lot of people who cared," Harrison says. "It made the difference. It got me back into spirituality. Before, I'd just do my work and go home."
Lancaster says Harrison experienced the Salvation Army's mission in the flesh.
Turning a corner
"It's part of the mission to reach out ... and to give a person the opportunity to become whole. With our help and his dedication and commitment, Harrison has been able to turn that corner in his life."
Now 39, Harrison has been sober for nearly two years and dreams of owning a home again. Last year, working full-time meant he could ring the bell at a Christmas kettle for only one day.
However, that nine-hour stint reminded him how far he had come, thanks to the support he received from The Salvation Army.
"They walked me through," he said. "Today I'm a better person."