Salvation Army of Osceola County burns down in intentional fire, suspect in custody
A Kissimmee Salvation Army service location suffered total losses after being vandalized and set on fire Monday night.
The Salvation Army of Osceola County, or the Osceola Christian Ministry Center, is a facility that provides hot meals, laundry services, clothing, showers, a food pantry, as well as utilities and rental assistance for people in need. The building that burned down is located on 700 Union St.
The religious organization said Kissimmee Police Department and Fire Rescue were on scene within minutes, however, the fire had already engulfed most of the building by then.
Cpt. Ken Chapman, the unit’s area commander, said the building was unoccupied at the time of the fire. For now, he said, he and staff members are holding on to faith.
“No one was hurt, thank goodness -- it’s only things,” Chapman said. “Sometimes your biggest defeats pave the way for your greatest victories, and we believe that God’s plan is bigger than ours. So, we look forward to what he’s going to do through this.”
Among the losses, Chapman said, are a brand new roof that had been recently installed, as well as a new industrial washer and dryer set, as the facility provided laundry services for people experiencing homelessness. Also, he said the food and clothing in the pantries and all of the office equipment was “completely trashed.”
“The building can stand,” he said, “but it has to be stripped down to just the bare bones and started over again.”
Chapman said the police have a suspect in custody. A man who frequented the facility for services.
According to Chapman, there was a disagreement and the man became irate, yelling at staff members just hours before the incident. He said there is a possibility the suspect might incur federal charges.
“He said, ‘I will be back here to burn this place down. I hate Christians.’ And so, that could very possibly end up being a hate crime,” the captain said.
According to Chapman, there are eyewitnesses, as well as camera footage, all which show the man started the fire. He said the man did not try to hide after setting the building on fire but that he just walked across the street, waited, and later confessed to police.
Chapman said most of the people the organization helps “are dealing with some kind of brokenness in their lives,” such as struggles with homelessness, addiction, and mental health problems, so staff members have made a decision not to disparage the man.
“It's really easy for us to judge, but we don't know the things they've been going through and the things they've been struggling with. And our nature is to try to forgive and to love the person and not the actions they display. It's hard but we're trying to do that,” he said.
The Salvation Army has become a staple of the holiday season, and Osceola is one of the state’s fastest-growing counties — the single fastest-growing county in Central Florida, according to the U.S. Census. With this, Chapman said, the local Salvation Army’s work has increased tremendously since 2020, and having this incident happen right before the busiest, most wonderful time of the year will have its impact.
“It does put extra pressure on the holiday season,” Chapman said. “This was quite a blow for us last night.
The team is now in short term and long term strategic planning, as well as “boots on the ground” efforts, the unit leader said, with several churches and nonprofits already reaching out in support, offering to help.
“We didn’t miss a beat. We were out today doing our regular feeding as we normally do, and very few of our services will be interrupted only for a few days because we’re a resilient army. We’re still marching along,” Chapman said. “We will bounce back.”
The incident occurred just days after the unit had officially kicked off the holiday season with the Salvation Army’s signature Red Kettle. In partnership with Valencia College, this year, staff members revealed what they’ve dubbed the World’s Largest Red Kettle at the 52nd Annual Fall Fiesta in the Park event Saturday in Lake Eola Park, fully expecting to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records.
Osceola County Commissioner Peggy Sandoval Choudhry visited the site shortly after the incident. She later echoed the community’s dismay on social media.
“It’s been a long and sad day,” she posted.
Chapman said that while the attack was indeed disheartening, the staff remains grateful, expecting God has a plan for the best outcome.
“You watch and see over the next week how this community rises up and helps the Salvation Army,” he said. “I believe God’s plan is so much bigger than mine, and he may just be paving the way -- we have a vision, a 15,000-square-foot, one-stop resource center in Osceola where you can go to one place and get help from many different organizations. And this may be the very thing that propels us into that.”
Chapman said it might be at least six months before the facility is back up and running. In the meantime, he urged anyone looking to help to please refrain from donating old clothes, furniture, or household items. Those can be taken to the organization’s Family Store and Adult Rehabilitation Center on 3899 West Colonial Drive in Orlando, he said.
For this service center, Chapman said the facility will require cash donations, as well as non-perishable foods to feed people in need and clean sweaters and blankets so people experiencing homelessness can keep warm during the colder months ahead.
Lillian Hernández Caraballo is a Report for America corps member.