The Salvation Army Christmas Bureau runs on a lot of things: Energy, enthusiasm, volunteers … and sugar.
A lot of sugar.
Check around the tables in the office and breakroom and you’ll spot candy bags and cookie trays.
Next year, though, the bureau will lose a major source of sugar. In fact, it’s losing an actual major:
Maj. Kay Lancaster, area commander for the Salvation Army in Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties, will retire this June, after 45 years of service. Lancaster shares the duties with her husband, Maj. Bobby Lancaster, who also will retire.
For Kay Lancaster, that’s 45 years of Christmases, Christmas bureaus and holiday volunteers. And 45 years of baking cookies and other treats to feed the staff and volunteers.
“I enjoy baking,” Lancaster admits. “I can bake and give to others. I do it because I want to – not because I have to do it.”
This is the most hectic weekend of the year for the Lancasters, when the couple and their staff mobilize to gather up tens of thousands of donated toys from malls, businesses and churches, and deliver them to the Christmas Bureau.
In all, 50,000 toys are needed for nearly 12,000 needy children. If not enough toys show up, the agency will fill the gap by buying toys with money provided by Observer readers to the Empty Stocking Fund.
Located in an old Wal-Mart building at South Boulevard and Arrowood Road, the Christmas Bureau is a cavernous space covering roughly 100,000 square feet. It’s chilly when it’s cold outside and hot when it isn’t.
Starting in October, when families in need visit to fill out forms requesting help, it’s filled with staff and volunteers. Early in the season, that ranges from 25 to 50 per shift, rising to 200 a shift as it gets closer to Distribution Day, when they start giving things away, on Dec. 17.
There’s constant work to do: Sorting toys, filling bags, stuffing stockings, lining up bikes to be checked in. Walking all over the big building, you burn a lot of calories. While many volunteers and staff members bring their lunch or get together to order pizza, grabbing a cookie or a piece of cake is sometimes what keeps everyone going.
Baking treats to share goes back to the start of Kay Lancaster’s career. A native of Little Rock, Ark., Lancaster attended a Salvation Army church with her family when she was a girl. She always knew what she was going to do when she grew up.
“It was a calling from God, that this is the route, to serve others,” she says.
As a young volunteer with her first apartment, she worked with a youth group. An older co-worker, Lenore Porter, got her started baking.
“I have some of those recipes to this day,” she says.
At 21, she went to the Salvation Army seminary in Atlanta. That’s where she met Bobby Lancaster, a native of Rocky Mount in eastern North Carolina. They married and set off on the Salvation Army life, raising two kids and moving around the country – Oklahoma, Virginia, North Carolina.
“We’ve seen so many areas,” she says. “There’s never been a place we went that we were ready to leave.”
In all of those posts, for all of those Christmases, Lancaster baked for the volunteers and her co-workers. Ooey Gooey Butter Bars. Orange Balls. Haystacks.
Cakes are one of her favorites, always made from scratch.
“I don’t do the box,” she says.
She bakes even though she can’t eat treats herself – she has diabetes and has to watch her diet. She just loves to share.
In June, the Lancasters will retire and finally settle in Rocky Mount, back in Bobby Lancaster’s hometown, where he still has a lot of family.
“I’ll still bake,” she says. “When his family gets together, there’s 30 or 40 people.”
She’ll spend her Christmas working for the Salvation Army, too. She’ll just do it as a volunteer.
“I’ll help out at Christmas,” she says. “You never give it up. I’m a minister and I will be to the day I die. The ministry doesn’t stop.”