Looking at the history of the Volunteers of America

The Volunteers of America (VOA) will soon officially open The Homestead at Anoka at Fourth Avenue and Grant Street, a state of the art senior care community. This $34 million first phase includes a 59-unit apartment building and a 120-bed skilled nursing facility.

The VOA story began on the Sunday evening of March 8, 1896 in New York City. A cheering crowd of 3,500 people packed the auditorium of the famous Cooper Union and 5,000 others pressed in around the building for a major event.

Bob Kirchner
Bob Kirchner

A man stepped forward on the stage and said, “it is quite true that after serious thought and careful deliberation we have resolved to inaugurate a new movement.” The speaker was Ballington Booth who announced the formation of a new organization first called God’s American Volunteers.

A week later the name was The Volunteers. When officially incorporated in November 1896 the name was fixed as Volunteers of America.

Their mission was “reaching and uplifting” the American people and they pledged to “go wherever we are needed, and do whatever comes to hand.”

But the origins of VOA are rooted in London, England, over 30 years earlier.

A poor pawnshop apprentice named William Booth moved to London for work. As a youth he had dedicated his life to serve God and in 1852 he entered ministry through the Methodist Church.

He responded to God’s call to serve both the spiritual and material needs of the unfortunate residents of the East London slums. In 1865 he established the Christian Revival Society, later known as the East End Christian Mission, then the Christian Mission and finally the Salvation Army which grew into an international organization. In 1880 an American division was established in New York City.

In 1887 Booth sent his son and daughter-in-law, Ballington and Maud Booth, to lead the American division. But after differences over the conduct of operations, they decided to step away from leadership and start a new work that would more directly reflect the American spirit at the time.

So in an atmosphere of growing American nationalism and democracy, Ballington and Maud Booth applied their forceful faith to their original Salvation Army calling to start this new organization.

Even before landing on U.S. shores, the Booths had won the hearts and minds of influential New York socialites who became the initial financial muscle of the fledgling organization. Booth soon realized philanthropic spirit would make VOA successful.

Local chapters quickly spread across America with a post established in Minneapolis on April 24, 1896.

As an offshoot of the Salvation Army, the VOA is deeply rooted in the evangelical Christian social and reform movements of the 19th century.

As Ballington Booth wrote, “Christianity and philanthropy must go hand in hand. You can have philanthropy without Christianity, but you cannot have Christianity without philanthropy.”

Founded as a national non-profit, faith-based organization, VOA is dedicated to helping vulnerable people including the frail elderly, people with disabilities, at-risk youth, men and women returning from prison, homeless individuals and families, those recovering from addictions and many others.

Today, VOA is one of America’s largest and most comprehensive human services organizations, with over 16,000 professional employees touching the lives of two and a half million people each year.

VOA’s network of affordable housing facilities now includes 377 properties in 40 states and Puerto Rico.

The national VOA organization is the owner and operator of the Anoka Care Center and developer of The Homestead at Anoka project.

A separate organization, known as Volunteers of America Minnesota, operates the Bar-None Ranch north of Anoka which began in 1954.

According to its mission statement, the VOA is a movement organized to reach and uplift all people and bring them to the knowledge and active service of God by illustrating the presence of God through all that we do, serving people and communities in need and creating opportunities for people to experience the joy of serving others. They measure success in positive change in the lives of individuals and communities they serve.

Now their motto, “there are no limits to caring,” will be lived out in their new facility on Fourth Avenue North for generations to come.

Bob Kirchner is a local historian, seminary student and city of Anoka’s part-time community development director.

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