There was never enough to eat in Kenneth's home in Detroit. There was never an adult around in Sam's home in St. Louis.
Kenneth's mother was sometimes strung out on crack. Sam's mother was dead.
Kenneth had no regular bed and no school uniform, so he quit going to school. He skipped out on much of seventh grade and ninth grade and almost gave up on a future.
Sam survived the car accident that killed her mother. But the 10-year-old could barely stand the heartbreak, and neither could her father, who salved his grief working three jobs. Sam grew up overnight. And so, so mad.
The chances of Kenneth and Sam thriving despite tough childhoods would seem slim. But both did — thanks, in large part, to an organization they now serve as adults. The Salvation Army lived up to its name for Kenneth in Detroit and Sam in St. Louis. And now the couple, married and ordained pastors in the religious and charitable nonprofit Salvation Army, are in north Omaha hoping that their story can help save others.
Lts. Kenneth and Samantha "Sam" Jones were stationed in June at the Salvation Army North Corps' facility at 24th and Pratt Streets. It is part soup kitchen (150 to 200 lunches served each weekday); part rec center (adult and youth basketball teams use the gym); part after-school drop-in center (children get meals, computer time and homework help); and part chapel (the Joneses preach at 11:15 a.m. Sunday service).
The community center can be adapted as needed, Ken said as he walked me through it: This is the chapel, but it's also a multi-purpose room. This is the gym, but it's also where we serve lunch. This is the computer lab but also the after-school center. Built decades ago, there have been talks about replacing it. But there are no current plans, and the old building seems to work.
The Lts. Jones aim to serve whoever shows up. They work in tandem with the center's director, former Creighton University and Central High basketball standout Josh Jones.
Their presence is drawing interest. First, they're relatively young. Kenneth is 27; Sam is 31 and they have a darling 18-month-old daughter, Lorelai, who has the run of the place. Second, they're a mixed-race couple. Sam is white. Kenneth is black.
He said that's "a blessing" coming to a place that serves a predominantly African-American population. Kenneth said it helps people approach him; indeed I watched one 59-year-old African-American man walk right up and stick his hand out.
"Hey, Andre," Kenneth said to the man.
"He remembered my name! I only met him once," Andre gushed.
Kenneth and Sam got placed in Omaha in June, part of the Salvation Army's military-like structure that ascribes military ranks to ordained pastors who then get assigned to Salvation Army posts around the world and serve generally three or four-year terms.
The organization decides where and when they move next. Salvation Army officers get organization-owned housing, cars and phones and receive small living stipends. In turn, they perform church services and pitch in at what can be a 24/7 job. They wear uniforms — navy slacks or skirt, white pressed shirt, navy tie and red shoulder patches, or epaulets.
The Salvation Army, known for its Christmastime red kettle fundraising campaign and its array of social services, is actually a Protestant religion. Founded in London in 1865 by a Methodist pastor, William Booth, the church focused on serving the poor and adopted a military vocabulary. Church members are soldiers, ministers are officers, and the army has a uniform, flag and brass band.
Salvationists see themselves as part of God's Army, on the front line of their mission to serve people in need.
And Kenneth and Samwere definitely people in need.
Kenneth was one of 10 children, counting siblings and cousins, growing up in a house that had rodents and no food. Julie Dorony, who worked at the Salvation Army center in Detroit's tough Brightmoor neighborhood of burned-out and abandoned homes, said the family's home had no windows.
"They had plastic for windows," she said. "And Detroit? That can get mighty cold in the winter."
She remembers meeting Kenneth when he was 7 or 8, tagging along to vacation Bible school with another child. He never stopped going. He earned Salvation Army badges, a system of do-goodism and projects like the Boy Scouts.
"He pretty much earned every emblem there was," she said.
Dorony described him as bright and tenacious but neglected at a home where no one got the kids up for school, and no one made them go. Kenneth said his mom didn't get him a school uniform in the seventh grade, so he stayed home from the public school that required them.
Dorony helped get Kenneth enrolled in a high school degree program that enabled him to finish. Kenneth got into community college and stayed active with the Salvation Army, which sent him to Hungary on a summer service trip.
It was a life-changer. Kenneth had barely traveled out of Detroit. He saw possibilities beyond the confines of his neighborhood. He visited a cousin who was Salvation Army officer training in Chicago, where he first met Sam.
Sam was the oldest of three children in a nuclear family where Dad worked and Mom stayed home. They were all in a car together with her mom driving when another car struck theirs, killing her mother. Sam, riding in the back seat, was trapped at first. Later, in the hospital, she kept calling for her mother.
Much later at home, Sam found herself the new little mother. Her dad worked all the time, and Sam felt the pressure of getting herself and two younger siblings dressed, fed and out the door. This made her angry. Her mother's death made her sad. At night she'd lie in bed and yell at God. She felt all alone, and her anger intensified.
"Dad was working, working, working," she said. "I was crying, crying, crying."
Social workers got called to the house because of suspected neglect. And that's how Sam wound up at the Salvation Army center in St. Louis. They created an after-school program to serve her and her siblings. Sam took cornet lessons and played basketball. Sam said she knew that inside the walls of the Salvation Army she could "be a hot mess" and that the Salvation Army people weren't going anywhere. It was a constant. When she got kicked out of the house, an officer couple with the Salvation Army invited her to live with them.
Maj. Rachel Stouder, now based in Indianapolis, said Sam is like a daughter to her. Sam calls Rachel "Mom." Rachel said the Salvation Army faith is "Christianity with its sleeves rolled up."
Sam wound up at the Salvation Army College for Officer Training in Chicago, where Kenneth's cousin was attending. She and Kenneth met once. No fireworks. It was years later, when Sam was done with training and Kenneth was still in Detroit, that they reconnected on Facebook — over basketball.
In 2014, he posted a "happy birthday, Kevin Durant," for the then-member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. She commented, "I love this." He replied: "At least someone appreciates me." He private-messaged her. In 2016, they got married.
Omaha is the latest placement for Lt. Sam Jones, who has served Salvation Army posts in Beloit, Wisconsin, and two communities in Chicago. It's Lt. Kenneth Jones' first. They are the latest in a long line of Salvation Army officers (36 total — including 22 couples) to serve north Omaha since the 1930s.
They want to get involved. They want to help. Most of all, they want to show — as Sam says — that "we're living examples of how God interceded." In other words, salvation.