Pioneer reflects on origins of local Salvation Army |

Pioneer reflects on origins of local Salvation Army

Ruth and Jerry Milsaps, left, with Lawrence and Eddie Havener were back in town for last weekend's dedication of Trinity Church's new building and renovation. Milsaps was one of the founders of the local Salvation Army chapter.
Jon Sheppard | Special to the Daily |

To help

Vail Valley Salvation Army office and food pantry

322 East Beaver Creek Boulevard, Avon, Colorado

(Behind City Market and Wells Fargo, next to the Beaver Creek Rodeo at Traer Creek in Avon)

Phone number: 970-748-0704

For information go to

EAGLE COUNTY — For a blind guy, Jerry Milsaps has always had amazing vision.

It wasn’t exactly in an Old Testament kind of way, but Milsaps was one of the pastors Trinity Baptist Church who beget the Thrifty Shops, which beget Vail Valley Cares, and he ran the local Salvation Army chapter. He didn’t come up with the idea of food pantries, but he stuffed the food stuffs for the Salvation Army into his tiny office.

You don’t need 20/20 vision to see the community needs.

Hal Holman, a Presbyterian minister in Minturn, started the local Salvation Army chapter. When he left the valley, Holman passed that torch to Milsaps, who carried it for eight years.

Jerry and Ruth Milsaps and their two boys came to the valley in September 1988 to pastor Lake Creek Baptist Church. They worked in a national parks ministry in Yellowstone the year fire hammered the park.

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Jerry has been visually impaired his entire life and has never had a driver’s license. When he was pastor of Lake Creek Baptist Church, he used to walk from their house to the church, because in 1988 in Edwards there was nothing to get in his way. He rode his bicycle all over the valley and was one of the happiest people alive when bike racks were added to the ECO buses.

Oddball blessings

The Salvation Army did all sorts of quirky, oddball things in those days. Then again …

“I’ve lived a pretty quirky and oddball life,” Milsaps said.

Milsaps believes in reaching people where they are. Like the guy who lived in a culvert.

He had been at the Vail Chapel for a service with Jack Van Ens. Van Ens was giving him a ride home, and asked where in Avon he wanted to be dropped off.

“Drop me off at the stop sign. I have a guy living under the interstate in a culvert, and I need to get him some food,” Milsaps said.

Van Ens has heard all kinds of stuff, but nothing quite like that.

“That’s not the sort of thing you would expect to have in this area,” Milsaps said.

Milsaps explained that the guy had a job as sheet rocker, and he wanted to get on his feet on his own. He didn’t want money for a place to stay, but he could use some food, Milsaps explained.

“He got his second paycheck and had enough money to rent a place to stay,” Milsaps recalled.

There was the time photographer Jon Sheppard and a couple other buddies wondered aloud how many of Colorado’s ski areas they could ski in one day. They raised a bunch of money and a helicopter flew them to the ski areas.

“We skied 18 ski areas in one day. I don’t think anyone has topped it. That’s not bad for an old blind guy,” Milsaps said.

Hours of need

Running the Salvation Army reminded him that people who need money usually call before 8 p.m. The late night calls tended to be something else entirely — people who needed counseling, or had been drinking too much and were lonely or worse.

One guy was staying in Trinity’s Church’s Lake Creek church cabin until he got on his feet. He was using the church phone to talk to his girlfriend and she broke up with him.

He took a whole bottle of Tylenol, hoping he’d kill himself. He didn’t. So he called her back. She called 911 and the police called Milsaps. Churches usually have kitchens and kitchens usually have cutlery. This guy got his hands on a serious knife and threatened to kill himself and possibly others. It took until midnight to talk him down off that ledge.

There was the time late at night when a condo complex burned in Edwards.

“I went down there and it was pretty easy to identify who was watching their house burn,” Milsaps said.

The Thrifty Shop was a few feet down the road, so he led the fire victims down there, unlocked the place and let them pick out several days’ worth of clothes and other necessities.

Ministering to motorists

Milsaps was one of the first to organize help for motorists stranded by winter storms, or just by life itself, which was part of the impetus for starting the Thrifty Shops.

Milsaps was running the local Salvation Army chapter and stuff kept piling up in his office. People would give him blankets, food and other things, and he’d give them away to folks who needed a hand.

He called Salvation Army’s regional directors in Denver and pitched the idea of a Salvation Army thrift store in the valley. It would generate some money up here, Milsaps told them.

“We approached them because they know how to do it,” Milsaps said.

“No,” the Denverites said. It’s too far away and it wouldn’t make any money.

They were wrong, of course.

Rev. Benny Clark was pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, which had merged the Lake Creek and Vail congregations and added a service in Beaver Creek. Clark and Milsaps pitched the Thrifty Shop idea to the Vail Rotary Club, which pledged $15,000 in loans for a year.

The Rotarians gave them half up front, enough to pay the rent.

In less than six months, the Thrifty Shop repaid the Rotarians their $7,500 and have never needed another dime.

The Thrifty Shops fund Vail Valley Cares’ philanthropy program. They’ve given away more than $2 million total to local nonprofits — $250,000 this year alone.

That doesn’t include more than two dozen jobs the Thrifty Shops created.

Their Edwards building? They bought it. The one in Eagle? They bought the land and built the building. They paid off the Eagle loan years ago.

They get great stuff, and they do great stuff.

“Vail Valley Cares is designed to be a blessing to the donor and the recipient. People see that and they want to be part of it. It blesses everyone. It’s a win-win situation all around,” Milsaps said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and

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