By Bob Highfill
STOCKTON – The coronavirus pandemic has put many individuals in an uncomfortable position, where their finances and personal freedoms are under duress. People want their lives to improve to “normal” but don’t know when those days will come. Though Juan Oregel is as challenged as anyone during these unprecedented times, personally and professionally, the 40-year-old husband and father of four perhaps is better equipped than most to handle the rigors of being a Lieutenant in the Salvation Army. Since June, Oregel and his wife, Mony, have been assigned to the Salvation Army in Stockton and are working with civic leaders to develop partnerships to help residents in one of the state’s most underserved areas. Given his past, when his life was frighteningly out of control, Oregel knows better than anyone that with faith, diligence and optimism, better days will come.
“Overall, we’re doing great,” Oregel said from his office on Weber Street in downtown Stockton. “We’ve had to make adjustments just like every business. Our priority right now is partnering up with the community and seeing how we can meet the needs and help with the challenges.”
The Salvation Army is an international charitable organization with membership of close to 2 million soldiers, officers and adherents, called Salvationists. The organization works to improve the community through a multitude of services, including disaster relief, homeless shelters, LBGTQ support, after-school programs, food pantries, grassroots services, life skills to escape poverty, alcohol and drug rehabilitation, spiritual healing, job training, summer camps, solutions to human trafficking, veteran services, and services for the aging, help during the holidays and help for domestic abuse.
Juan and his wife of four years, Mony, and their four kids, Dominic, 21 years old; Allison, 15; Allix, 11; and two-year-old Cori are an army unto themselves, working together to help the community. Juan and Mony are deeply involved as pastors with the Salvation Army’s critical spiritual outreach component, and the food boxes and meals they put together and distribute provide a vital lifeline for homeless and low-income individuals, families and residents of The Salvation Army Silvercrest Residence apartment building. Juan also is working with city and county leaders on numerous projects, including finding hotel and motel rooms to house the vulnerable homeless community during the coronavirus pandemic and creating a shelter to quarantine homeless and low-income COVID-19 patients.
The Salvation Army in Stockton is a hub for low-income PG&E customers to receive bill payment support. The Oregels have turned the Salvation Army’s gymnasium into a food bank where they receive donations. They provide lunches and activity bags for some 200 kids weekly. They also provide food assistance to migrant farm workers. And that only scratches the surface. There seemingly is no end to the needs of the community and there seemingly is no end to Juan’s and Mony’s commitment to meet the needs.
“It’s been challenging for a lot of us in different ways,” said Juan, “with the increase of people needing food and people for the very first time asking for assistance and being able to provide resources and also be encouraged by donors that are willing to meet the needs financially as well.”
Juan has made an amazing transformation to be where he is today. He owes his life to the organization he now serves. The Salvation Army was Juan’s salvation after his life on the streets of southeast Stockton nearly cost him everything. At age 29, unemployed, addicted to drugs, sleeping on his mother’s couch and burdened with a long rap sheet, Juan decided enough was enough. He was tired of letting himself and his family down. He wanted a better life but didn’t know how to get there.
The turning point came when Juan stood before a judge on yet another criminal charge. The ultimatum: three years in prison or six months with the Salvation Army. Juan chose the latter, earned a General Educational Development diploma and devoted himself to the Salvation Army College for Officer Training at Crestmont in Rancho Palos Verdes. The organization filled his physical needs by providing a safe place to live and three square meals a day, and lifted his spirit through chapel services, Bible study and recovery classes.
“I fell in love quickly with the Salvation Army because of what they did,” Juan said. “It was just like this is something I want to be a part of.”
Juan accepted Jesus Christ in his heart and became a pastor, an officer in the Salvation Army, accepting the responsibility of helping the community and being a leader while living a clean and sober life.
Juan was working at the Salvation Army Oakland Gardens Street location when he met Mony, then a volunteer at the site. She went to the Salvation Army College and now is an ordained pastor. They were married in 2016. Juan accepted Mony’s three children and their dog, Nino, as if they were his own. The couple had Cori together.
“He loved the Lord and he wanted to serve the Lord with every part of him,” Mony said about her husband. “That was something I wanted in my life.”
Juan said he made good on his grandmother’s pleas that he go to church, turn his life over to God and give her more grandchildren. Unfortunately, she passed away before she could see all the good that Juan and Mony and their kids have done in the community. But he takes comfort knowing she’s looking down on him from Heaven with pride.
Juan said he couldn’t be happier giving back to Stockton, the city where he was raised, fell from grace and returned with the resolve to improve people’s lives.
“I get to meet leaders that want to change this city,” Juan said. “My wife and I get to play a part in an unfortunate world. It’s like a dream. It’s better than I ever imagined.”
The Salvation Army Stockton at 1305 E. Weber Ave. needs cash and non-perishable food donations. For more information, visit https://stockton.salvationarmy.org/ or call (209) 948-8955.