Major Deborah Gugala has spent her life overcoming challenges, and brings that experience to her work with others in the midst of tough situations.
She was born with polio and spent her early years in an iron lung, but said her large family refused to coddle her.
“The rule in my house was that if Deborah could do it, make her do it,” Gugala said. “At the same time, they would come alongside when needed.”
This philosophy combines with Gugala’s joyful disposition, as she uses her unique insights to help others at The Salvation Army, where she serves alongside her husband, Major Gary Gugala.
Deborah Gugala has been instrumental in the creation of a couple of different programs through The Salvation Army and works with individuals in crisis to help them learn to use the resources they do have. Her work has earned her recognition by the Pittsburg Area Chamber of Commerce as a 2016 Woman of Distinction.
In the early years of their marriage, the Gugalas were heavily involved in Assembly of God churches, and Gugala said they needed a place to put feet to their faith.
Her husband had been a piano tuner for a number of years and was drawn to The Salvation Army when tuning a piano at one.
“A gentleman talked to my husband and said, ‘I think your wife would like The Salvation Army,’” Gugala said. “We visited an Army and it was on a day when there was a lot of activity going on. The band was playing and they were enrolling children as junior soldiers. It was just so cool and exciting.
“It gave Gary and I an opportunity to do a partner ministry."
She said the two share a job and are partners in the ministry, which allows them each to play to their strengths. This gives her the opportunity to dig into the administrative side of the ministry, which, she said, fits well with her physical abilities as well as her talents.
“I am not disabled, but I do have a physical disability,” Gugala said. “I was born with it. My mother’s best friend died of polio shortly before I was born and the doctors felt that I would be protected because of the placenta.”
She said her mother realized early on that something was wrong with her child, and Gugala was diagnosed with polio at five weeks old.
However, her family was uniquely positioned to help her grow through the challenges that came with the disease.
“In WWII, my dad was assigned to a hospital in Alaska,” Gugala said. “His job was to create things to help the men use the limbs they had remaining. He took what he had learned when he was in the Army, and I had the most amazing toys in the world.”
She said she was told she was the only one properly trained to use the toys, so she was the one pedaling the train in her back yard while the other children rode along.
“I was playing, and I was the most popular kid in the neighborhood because I had the coolest toys,” she said.
She later realized that her father had created a form of physical therapy and the limitations were to prevent others from interfering with her opportunity to strengthen her body.
Similarly, she said many people in crisis situations benefit from someone helping them learn to use their own strengths, rather than just intervening.
This is the idea behind the Representative Payee program, one of Gugala’s major accomplishments through The Salvation Army.
“What we noticed happening frequently was people who were on Social Security were coming in crisis, but they were getting regular checks all along from the government,” Gugala said.
She began researching options and helped launch the new program, which allows The Salvation Army to manage Social Security payments for individuals referred to the program.
“Generally, they are referred to us because the government has said, ‘You can no longer manage your money,’” Gugala said.
The Salvation Army then receives the check, pays the rent, utility and other major bills and distributes the remainder each week as spending money.
“Whatever is not used for their basic living expenses gets divided up into personal spending checks, and those come to them every Wednesday,” Gugala said, adding if a true emergency, such as a brutal winter, comes up The Salvation Army then can come alongside and aid that individual.
The success of the Representative Payee program has led to the formation of another, similar opportunity.
“This year we’re kicking off Pathway to Hope, which is a similar program, but for families with kids,” Gugala said.
Within Pathway to Hope, employees at The Salvation Army will help to identify leaks in household budgets and help set attainable household goals.
“The idea is that they would be able to gain self-sustainability,” Gugala said.
She said people often come in seeing what they don’t have, but are empowered when they can look at what they do have and learn how to overcome the challenges.