They are the best of us

I had to pre-record the February 23rd edition of IMPACT as I was going to be out of the country on that date. So, Kate Penney, Shelters Manager from The Salvation Army Community Services Centre came into the studio the week before and we had a delightful 30-minute visit. You can listen to that interview by clicking here.

Salvation Army Community Services Centre

The Salvation Army Community Services Centre may appear, at first blush, to be just a thrift store, a place to drop off your clothes that no longer fit. However, according to Penney, it is so much more than that.

“When we have visitors they are very surprised by what that small building houses and the amount of work being done to support individuals in our community,” said Penney.

In addition to the thrift store, the downtown facility houses the emergency men’s shelter, the Mat Program, Community Response Unit, and the Community and Family Services Centre. It is also home base for programs like Housing First and START.

“We can’t stand alone,” she said. “All the community partners that we work with that support the individuals that we support, all work together.”


In her current role for three years, Kate came to Fort McMurray from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. She has spent over 25 years working with individuals who are marginalized. It is clear that she loves working with people and facilitating hope and dignity, a vocation that probably has roots in her formative years.

Growing up in a small rural community in New Brunswick, she spent a lot of time with her Grandpa and Grandma.

“My grandmother’s house was probably one of the first shelters, one of the first food banks, probably one of the first places you went if you needed something,” said Penney. “My grandmother used to say that when you give people things you need to remember to give something with it; you need to give them dignity.”

That sense of giving dignity has imbued its way into her role with The Salvation Army and was reflected in a dramatic facelift of the Mat Program space in the summer of 2014. Made possible through business donations and volunteers, the renovation had a positive impact on the patrons.

“It’s cheery; it’s bright; and whatever has happened outside, that’s outside. When you come inside, this is a place where you can be safe and you’re welcome and cared about; you’re family.”

The Mat Program operates from September 15th to May 15th and gives individuals experiencing homelessness and a variety of addictions and mental health issues a warm and safe place to sleep and eat. It is literally saves lives every single day.

“I’m pleased to say that our numbers are not as large as they used to be,” said Penney. “Individuals are being housed and things are going great. But there is still a great need and a large number. We’ve also seen an increase in the number of people that we feed.”

Kate shared several stories of incredible generosity and heart as guests help each through tough times.

“The kindness that you see among people who often are the ones who need support the most is uplifting,” said Penney. “It just shows the resiliency and the compassion and encourages us even more to be the best that we can be.”

A guest at the emergency men’s shelter had to go to Calgary for a surgery. Around the same time another guest, who had been saving to get an apartment and get reunited with his family asked if he could stay an extra week. Kate said of course without giving it a second thought. She found out later that the gentlemen, after having consulted with his wife, decided to give his savings to the fellow who had to get the medical procedure so that he could afford to stay in a hotel and be more comfortable in his recovery.

“I have the best job in the world,” she said. “The guests who come to our shelter are the most amazing people I’ve ever met in my life. They’re funny. They’re intelligent. They’re witty. They’re kind. They’re intuitive. Their circumstances may be difficult and some days they may lose hope, but they are they best of us, and they deserve the best.”


Author: Russell Thomas

​Russell is a marketing and communications professional who has spent 20 years in Wood Buffalo working with the OK Radio Group, Keyano College, Arts Council Wood Buffalo, and now with The United Way of Fort McMurray. A regular blogger, Russell's writing can be seen online ( and in multiple publications. His paintings can be seen in homes and businesses throughout the community. Married to Heather and "Papa" to Dylan and Ben, Russell is a passionate spokesperson for United Way.