Byrd’s Song

By Jennifer Blot

Jennifer Byrd, communications director for the Golden State division of the Salvation Army, stands at a pier not far from where a man named Joseph McFee set out a crab pot in 1891 to collect money for San Franciscans in need. (Anastasia Blackman)

Salvation Army’s longtime communications director shares stories of service — and change.

For years, it has been a story that told itself: The Salvation Army’s bell ringers and red kettles are the feel-good harbinger of the holiday season and holiday giving. A San Francisco story, one that took root in 1891 when a man named Joseph McFee placed a large crab pot at the foot of Market Street to collect money for people in need.

Only this year, it has an inevitable new spin: Fewer kettles around town (for reasons ranging from retail closures and scant foot traffic to loyal senior bell ringers understandably sitting this one out) coupled with greater need necessitated a “Rescue Christmas” online giving campaign that launched before fall even began.

“We are bringing our kettle online,” says long-time Salvation Army Communications Director Jennifer Byrd, as she rattles off new ways to augment the tradition of dropping a few bucks in the bucket: Scan the QR codes on the kettles stationed around town (an option put in place because, pandemic or not, people don’t carry much cash anymore), text-to-give or donate through the website — even Alexa will know what to do. Right now, Byrd notes, “families are looking at: Do I pay my electricity bill, or do I buy a toy for my child?” To help, she says, there’s now an Angel Tree toy registry at Walmart, to makeup for the reduction in bins around town.

Byrd doesn’t disagree with the “cheerleader” title given to her by many people in her life. In her world, there’s not much separating the personal from the professional, and the glass is always half full, mirroring the organization she’s championed for 18 years — two tenures in San Francisco bracketing an eight-year stint as national communications director in Washington, D.C. — and for which she’s continually driven, she says, “to find creative ways to tell the Army’s story.”

Her path began on a May morning in 2002, when she set out on foot to find a new job. She had been doing communications consulting for law firms in the City but felt a strong draw to do something more. As she walked down Folsom Street, she recalls, “I saw the Salvation Army sign and thought: They do good things. I didn’t know a lot — like most people, I knew about the thrift stores and the red kettle — but I had a good feeling when I walked into the building.” For those who know Byrd, the image of her walking in off the street with an open, beaming face and asking the receptionist if there were any job openings is totally plausible. Two weeks after the receptionist handed her a binder containing job postings, she started as communications director.

Crafting her own job description from the get-go, Byrd set about sharing the stories. There was the Union Square ceremony marking the one-year anniversary of 9/11 and the Salvation Army’s legacy as the first nonprofit at ground zero; a summer camp in Scotts Valley for at-risk city kids; the back-to-school “shopping center” for kids to pick out free backpacks and school supplies; and that which would become a multiyear undertaking: the Tenderloin Kroc Center’s journey from groundbreaking to grand opening to serve as an after-school hub for the 3,000 kids who live in the neighborhood.

“Sometimes when nonprofits communicate about the work they do, we tend to go through laundry lists of services and programs. People can have short attention spans, so when I talk about the Army’s work I try to focus on the causes we work in: homelessness, poverty mitigation, food insecurity, senior care, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, youth services and emergency disasters,” Byrd says. “I find this helps to grab people’s focus and make it easier to understand the scope and breadth and depth of the work of the Army.” And, if your attention span allows, she’ll go into greater detail on providing people with second chances. Don’t be surprised when her eyes begin to well up — along with your own.

Byrd is on a first-name basis with editors at nearly every local news outlet and intimately familiar with every story she pitches. During COVID, she has taken the wheel of the Salvation Army’s minivan once a week to help deliver meals to people around the City. Pre-COVID, on the walk from her Nob Hill studio to her Folsom Street office, she made regular detours to see the kids and staff at the Kroc Center, stop by the Harbor Light Center drug and alcohol rehab facility in SoMa, or chat with seniors at the Chinatown Corps Community Center. She’s on the job most Christmases, and every Thanksgiving. Here, it’s coordinating logistics and media coverage for the turkey-carving festivities (sadly, on hiatus this year); as national director, she helped kick off the red kettle campaign during halftime at the annual Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving game.

“Time, talent or treasure, it brings out the best in people when they’re able to give,” says Byrd, whose positivity is so infectious that people are usually willing to help. Former SFFD Chief Joanne Hayes-White, a loyal participant at the annual Thanksgiving turkey-carving event, is one of them. Notes Hayes-White: “Jennifer is warm-hearted, cares deeply about helping those in need and believes strongly in the importance of sharing gifts and talents with those less fortunate than us.” Former Mayor Willie Brown, who was honored at a virtual Salvation Army luncheon last month, says of Byrd, “She seems so talented, so on top of everything,” while also lauding the nonprofit for being what he calls “genuinely like Mother Teresa.”

Rarely do you see Byrd without a smile, but she was rankled by something that became apparent when she arrived at the D.C. headquarters in 2009: “I got a sense that people didn’t think the Salvation Army served the LGBTQ community or hired from the LGBTQ community, and that perception conflicted with the Salvation Army I knew,” she says. Despite the fact the organization ran the first HIV/AIDS detox center in San Francisco in the 1980s, the anti-gay reputation was out there, especially on social media. So, Byrd launched the national initiative “Finding Common Ground” to change the narrative. “As a communications director, I was in a position to do something about it. I had a larger platform, a bigger responsibility. I wasn’t just speaking for the Salvation Army in San Francisco; I was speaking for the Salvation Army across the country. It included talking about the Salvation Army’s work in the LGBTQ community — and the inclusivity and service it demonstrates.” She also got the organization to change the language in its hiring policies.

Byrd’s return to San Francisco in 2017 meant doing more of the “boots on the ground” communications work she first fell in love with in the Salvation Army’s Golden State division, which also includes Silicon Valley, the Central Coast and the Central Valley. The City, she says, still had its undeniable “magic” — and noticeably more open drug use and homelessness. Today, she’s helping spread the word about “The Way Out” program, which strives to double the Salvation Army’s impact on homelessness with what Byrd calls a “holistic and wrap-around approach.” It will include adding 1,500 new beds at its current facilities and introducing a hyper-focused workforce development component.

Veteran San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan got to know Byrd years ago when he covered homelessness issues, recalling, “I would show up on her doorstep, naturally, because she’s so involved in helping the homeless.” Fagan points out that Byrd is “as sincere as the day is long.” What’s more, she shares stories that make a difference: “If Jennifer calls, I know it’s worth listening to.”

For more information, go to sanfrancisco.salvationarmy.org.

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