Soup, soap, salvation - in that order.
Such are the simple and succinct priorities of the Salvation Army, Kevin and Debbie Bickford explained recently.
As leaders of the local Salvation Army corps headquartered on Flagler Avenue, they adhere devoutly to the Christian principles of the church, but with a realistic approach that's crucial for organizations that truly want to help people.
"People aren't going to listen to 'God loves you,' if they're hungry or dirty," Debbie Bickford said Friday, seated on a secondhand couch in the church's thrift store.
The store sells secondhand clothing, shoes, linens, books, games, furniture, lamps, appliances, dishes and toys.
In the six months since the Bickfords' arrival in Key West, the thrift store has been rearranged, renovated, organized, updated and overhauled.
Its parking lot is also patrolled and protected now to curb the theft that for years had been rampant.
"When we were interviewed by the Army's colonel in charge of Florida, before being assigned to Key West, I told him that my philosophy was usually to spend a year in a new place, learning the operations, before making any drastic changes," said Kevin Bickford, a sergeant in the Salvation Army, which uses military officer ranks for its spiritual leaders and refers to members of its congregation as soldiers. "But the colonel said I didn't have a year; that change was needed down here right away."
And change is happening.
The Bickfords have brought structure and added services to the corps on Flagler Avenue. And while many equate the Salvation Army with only two things - thrift stores and red kettles at Christmas - the church offers more than cheap couches and $2 shirts.
Morning devotion times take place from 8 to 9 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and include bagels and coffee donated by local restaurants.
"We're not equipped to do a feeding program," Kevin Bickford said. "But we offer bagels in the morning. Plus, the soup kitchen down the street handles that really well, and we don't want to duplicate services. All the groups down here work really well together to meet people's needs."
The Salvation Army's social services office is open Tuesday mornings to distribute soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothbrushes and toothpaste to homeless people. The office also maintains a supply of used clothing and shoes too worn to be sold in the thrift store, but priceless to those with nothing else.
"We're always in need of shampoo and deodorant, especially the trial sizes from hotels. Remember, everything these people own has to fit inside a backpack," said Debbie Bickford, who joined her husband in Key West in July, from their previous post in Lakeland.
Kevin Bickford took the helm here in June, and immediately closed the thrift store for a few weeks.
"We needed structure and we needed the community to know we took pride in this place, because this is our church," he said, gesturing to the chapel adjacent to the shop in the church-owned complex. "The store was really in disarray. Theft of donations left outside was rampant and it had almost become a place, where, if you had kids, you weren't comfortable bringing them here."
"We're a church, and this shop is a business. We're not a doormat," Debbie Bickford emphasized.
She said they had to get rid of the large donation dropbox that was out front because of theft, and the fact that people would climb inside "to sleep and do other things."
In addition, she said, teams of pickup trucks routinely circle the thrift store, "casing the place" to steal donated furniture and other items before they can be brought inside.
He acknowledged the irony in the fact that some of the people stealing donated clothes are in fact the intended recipients of the donations.
"I caught one guy stealing from the donation box early one morning before we opened," Kevin Bickford said. " I told him, 'You don't have to steal from us, we'll help you.'"
And he did. When Bickford opened the office at 8 a.m., he welcomed the man inside and gave him clothes and shoes.
"But we've had people in Cadillac Escalades stealing armoires from out front," Debbie Bickford said, finalizing a volunteer schedule.
One of the most Salvation Army's most recognizable features is its Red Kettle Campaign during the holidays. Donations dropped in the kettles help support the church's ministries, whether it's a nickel or a $1,000 check.
"Some people drop their annual charitable donation into the kettles," Debbie Bickford said, hoping to expand the program next year to include more than six kettle locations.
The Salvation Army also distributes Publix gift cards to people in need, and anyone who was in the Lower Keys in 1998 following Hurricane Georges is familiar with the welcome sight of the Salvation Army's food trucks that distributed hot meals, C-rations and ice to the powerless island.
"Before coming here, I asked the colonel what I needed to learn in terms of hurricane relief, and he said, 'Nothing,'" Kevin said.
If a disaster occurs, we just step aside, because they're sending in the troops to do their thing, he said.
"We're just the hosts," Debbie Bickford added, pausing to greet a member of the congregation, which has grown since the couple's arrival.
We started with about 10 or 12 people at Sunday services, Kevin Bickford said.
"Now it's up around 50 or 60, and we offer a Creole service Sunday mornings now, for the Haitian residents," he said, getting ready to ring a bell next to a red kettle.