A festival held last weekend at Longwood Park in Gainesville, which aimed to educate the public about how to access housing assistance and other social services, was about as good an introduction to the local community as André and Débora Pereira could have hoped to receive.
The couple are the new corps officers and leaders of the Salvation Army’s Gainesville branch, located on Dorsey Street, and they had just moved into the city in mid-June.
“People didn’t feel like strangers,” Débora said of her experience at the festival. “It was just amazing to see” these groups “work together to make a difference in the community.”
In fact, the Salvation Army, with support from a local church, was able to assist a few homeless families who attended the festival and provide them emergency housing at its shelter on Dorsey Street.
The Pereira’s said the sense of partnership and collaboration they felt was both reassuring and exciting.
“We’re firm believers that there’s not one organization that can do it all,” André said about serving those in need.
The Salvation Army, among its many services, provides rent and utility assistance, operates an annual Christmas toy drive, and runs a thrift store located on Atlanta Highway that provides clothing vouchers to those unable to afford such a need.
And it’s these services that André said he hopes to raise awareness about locally.
“Our mission is always to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ … without discrimination,” he said.
But, he added, “We really want to get out there. I think there’s so much we offer that I don’t think people know about.”
Every three to four years, on average, the Salvation Army rotates its mission leaders among the nonprofit’s established social service sites.
After five years in Gainesville, that time came for Lt. Arnaldo Pena and Lt. Niurka Pena, who have now transitioned to Dalton.
And after four years in Augusta, the Pereira’s were moved to Gainesville, just the latest in a series of transformative moves the couple have made since 2011.
The Pereira’s moved to the United States from their native Portugal with plans to live and work here for three years. That first move was mostly inspired by their love of travel and desire to experience new places, people and things.
They worked in Washington, D.C. before beginning a two-year training program in Atlanta to become corps officers with the Salvation Army.
“Things just worked out,” André said. “God seemed to be working all that out. So, we stayed.”
In Augusta, the couple’s first placement at a Salvation Army site, the Pereira’s worked as pastors at a community resource center that included a gymnasium and swimming pool as part of its amenities to support community programs.
“We were able, through the church, to connect to the community and so we were able to bring children in and give them an opportunity to learn how to swim, to learn new skills like art, and things like that,” Débora said.
André described it as a “great experience,” which made leaving difficult.
But there’s some solace to be taken from that feeling.
“I think you’re doing something wrong if you ever get to the point where you leave a place and it’s not hard to leave,” André said.
Débora echoed those sentiments.
“It’s hard to leave those faces because they become a part of your family,” she said.
The bittersweet emotions of leaving Augusta, however, have been tempered by the response the Pereira’s have received upon their arrival in Gainesville.
“One of the things we realized really quick is that Gainesville wants to help,” André said. “That was a blessing for us, walking in and feeling that.”
While the Pereira’s have much to unpack – both literally, as moving boxes still harbor space on their office floors, and metaphorically, as they learn more and more about the local community – the uniqueness of Gainesville has impressed and excited them already.
“The biggest difference (compared with Augusta) is that multi-cultural touch,” André said of Gainesville, which has a minority-majority population. “We really feel that different cultures … bring a richness to a city and a community.”