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Working Downtown: Maj. Thomas McWilliams
Maj. Thomas McWilliams, Salvation Army Northeast Florida area commander.
"We moved north to move south," is how Maj. Thomas McWilliams, area commander of the Salvation Army Northeast Florida, describes his duty station in Jacksonville.

He and his wife, Maj. Staci McWilliams, came to Jacksonville in June from Palm Beach County, where he served as area commander.

"Palm Beach County is the Northeast. They call it the sixth borough of New York. Everybody there is seasonal," said McWilliams.

Born in Texas, McWilliams graduated from high school in Capetown, South Africa, where his parents were Salvation Army officers and missionaries. He then returned to the U.S. and attended the University of Southern Mississippi, where he graduated with a future NFL quarterback.

"I went to school with Brett Favre – that's what I tell people. He didn't know us and we didn't know him, but we were on the campus at the same time.

"Then I got married and went to training and I've been an officer 20 years. It has been a great 20 years," McWilliams said.

McWilliams said Palm Beach County is a seasonal community that includes the rich and famous along with the more conventional residents and visitors.

Moving to Jacksonville has been a transition.

"This is more normal America. It's good. In the summer, people are still here," he said.

One of McWilliams' initial impressions of Downtown was the distinctive architecture in the neighborhood.

"What struck us were all the pretty churches. You don't have that in Palm Beach County," he said.

The Salvation Army of Northeast Florida has a full-time staff of about 120 people, plus more than 15,000 volunteers. It provides services in Baker, Clay, Duval, Nassau, Putnam and St. Johns counties.

McWilliams said the most pressing social service need in North Florida is the homeless population and its diversity.

"There's no typical homeless person. Some are economically homeless. Some have mental distresses or family issues. There's no cookie cutter. Trying to meet their needs is a significant challenge," said McWilliams.

One area of focus locally is people and families who are working, but don't make enough money to fully support themselves.

McWilliams said the Salvation Army is developing programs that will serve that need while maintaining the organization's policy of providing immediate help. It also assist to create long-term solutions by providing programs that include evaluation, qualification and case management.

The organization just concluded its busiest time of the year.

"We have full programs year-round, but November and December are very busy times. We take all our normal programs and add Thanksgiving and Christmas programs," said McWilliams.

The calendar in 2013, with fewer days between the two holidays, affected the Salvation Army's annual fundraising campaign.

"Our Christmas fundraising this year was strong, but our Red Kettles were down a bit because Thanksgiving shifted later in the year. We lost five days between Thanksgiving and Christmas that we had the year before," McWilliams said.

He said 48 clubs, churches and groups volunteered.

"Compared to other places I've been, that's very strong," he said.

mmarbut@baileypub.com

(904) 356-2466

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