LAWRENCE — The Salvation Army prides itself on being an organization that's there for people when they need them the most.
Next month, the charitable organization and church is honoring a Lawrence police officer who did the same during the Sept. 13, 2018 gas disaster in the Merrimack Valley, officials said.
Officer Ivan Soto is this year's recipient of the "Doing The Most Good" award, which will be presented to him at the Salvation Army's Empowering Youth Breakfast on Oct. 4.
"Basically he lives his life in this way," said Lynne Brown, chairperson of the local Salvation Army advisory board.
On Sept. 13, 2018, Soto's home on Jefferson Street in South Lawrence was one of many houses burning due to the overpressurization of natural gas lines. Soto was on duty that day, directing people who were being evacuated from the city due to the gas disaster.
He remained on duty that evening, helping residents, until he was ordered to go home by a superior officer.
Soto, his wife, Veronica, and two daughters spent the past year rebuilding their lives and home. They were able to move back to the neighborhood late this spring.
Brown pointed to Soto's dedication describing him as one of the "heroes of the gas disaster."
"Not a lot of people would have done what he did," Brown said.
Soto, 37, previously was also an intern and guest speaker in the Salvation Army's "Bridging the Gap" program for court-involved and at-risk youth, she said.
The 12-week "Bridging the Gap" program assists local youth "who are not necessarily bad kids ... but have taken the wrong path," Brown said. "It gives them a second chance. These are kids no one else deals with on a positive level."
As an intern, Soto worked with the young people in the program, who are ages 12 to 17, and shared with them "his path to becoming a police officer."
He has since returned to the program as a guest speaker and talked with the participants about his education and experiences, Brown said.
She said he inspired at least "one young man with a rough background" who is now also pursuing a career in criminal justice.
Some 87% of students who graduate from the "Bridging the Gap" program do not re-offend within a year, according to the Salvation Army.
Launched in 1996, the nationally recognized program is an "prevention and intervention program with a very collaborative approach," noted Heather MacFarlane, communications director for the Salvation Army of Massachusetts.
Soto said he was "truly honored" when told he was being given the award.
"Especially because I started my law enforcement career with 'Bridging the Gap' as an intern. I believe the program they run is essential in guiding misguided youth in the right direction," he said.
The Salvation Army also played a role in the immediate response to the gas disaster and recovery efforts. Workers provided food and hydration to first responders and to residents displaced and in shelters, MacFarlane said.
Emergency hygiene kits were also given to people displaced during the disaster. And work continues now with effected families, she said.
MacFarlane pointed to a large family the Salvation Army assisted at Christmas last year. Displaced and living in temporary housing, the children were afraid "Santa wouldn't find them" so the Salvation Army worked with the family so they could return to their home. A Christmas tree, decorations and gifts were all provided to the family "because of the relationship we developed," she said.
"We are there through it all."
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter @EagleTribJill.
'Doing The Most Good' breakfast
The local Salvation Army "Doing The Most Good" breakfast will be held Friday, Oct. 4 at 8 a.m. at the Merrimack Valley Golf Club, 210 Howe St., Methuen.
Lawrence police officer Ivan Soto will be honored at the breakfast.
To sponsor the event or purchase tickets, check out salvationarmyma.org or call Lynne Brown at 978-682-8038.