Salvation Army Bell Ringers Have Become A Symbol Of Christmas And A Helping Hand

thurston county salvation armyBy Gail Wood

On a chilly afternoon, Stephen White stood by the Salvation Army’s red kettle, rhythmically ringing two tiny bells.

He appreciates the message on the sign above the red kettle – “Sharing is caring.”

White, who has musically played two tiny red bells for eight hours a day for nearly a month as he collected donations, understands how much help Salvation Army can be.

“When I was growing up, my mom and I got help from the Salvation Army,” White said. “We didn’t have anything. We had to stay there.”

Now, White, with a friendly manner, smiling and wishing people merry Christmas as they pass, is trying to help someone else.

White is part of what’s become a symbol of the Christmas season – a Salvation Army bell ringer. The red-kettle fundraiser, which began in San Francisco in 1891, supports the programs offered by Salvation Army throughout the year.

However, Jeannie McConnell, business administrator for the Salvation Army in Olympia, thought donations would fall short of the $189,000 target.

“They’re not desperately low, but they are lower than last year and the year before,” McConnell said. “The last two years there’s been a decline.”

In the Olympia area, there are 33 locations for bell ringers. Some locations have two bell ringers, covering two entrances at big stores like Fred Meyer and Wal-Mart. McConnell said while the preference is to get enough volunteers to work a red kettle, she knew there were more who were hired than volunteered. That raises the overhead and reduces net donations to support Salvation Army programs for the year.

But each year, there are not enough volunteers, so McConnell hires people, paying them the minimum wage of $8.65. In an attempt to cut costs, the Salvation Army has used in the past, in other states automated, color cutouts to beckon shoppers to donate. But nothing works better than someone standing at the door of a store wishing shoppers merry Christmas and ringing a bell.

White said the majority of people are receptive and generous to his bell ringing.

“People know about the Salvation Army,” White said. “They know who we are. They know what we stand for. They usually help out.”

Typically, shoppers stuff a dollar or two into the red kettle. But sometimes White said people write generous checks and put them into the kettle.

“If they can help out, they do,” White said.

White and Sharon have worked as bell ringers nearly every day since Thanksgiving. Both of them have experienced the helping hand of the Salvation Army. White, as a young boy growing up in Tacoma, needed to stay at the Salvation Army.

“We didn’t have anything,” White said. “It shows you can get back on your feet and actually do things. You can grow from that and remember those experiences. It’s awesome.”

thurston county salvation armyBy working as a bell ringer, Sharon said she was trying to pay back a debt.

“The Salvation Army has always been there for me,” Sharon said. “They’ve helped me when I needed help. I can never return the favor.”

Donations from the red-kettle drive are used to fund an emergency shelter, which provides housing for the homeless during freezing wintery weather. It also goes to extensive service assistance from rent to utility, gas vouchers and even prescriptions.

“We do a lot of assistance on referrals,” McConnell said.

The Salvation Army opened a church in Olympia in 1889 and has maintained a presents there ever since. The present church was built in 2000 and the shelter building was remodeled in 1989, 100 years after Salvation Army first arrived in Olympia.

The  tradition of the bell ringer for Salvation Army began in 1891 in San Francisco.

“They were trying to feed the homeless and the hungry in the San Francisco area,” McConnell said. “They didn’t have enough money for the food. Finally, the officer there said to his wife why don’t you give me that big soup pot and we’re going to put it out and see if we can’t raise some money.”

They put the kettle out and people put money into it.

“That’s how it started,” McConnell said. “It became a tradition.”

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