One of the most reassuring sounds of the holiday season may be the insistent ring of Salvation Army bells. This year in particular, the familiar red kettles dotting street corners and malls offer a measure of comfort and continuity. They represent tradition. They also symbolize a generosity of spirit - hands reaching into wallets and hearts reaching out to those in need.
But the calm presence of a bell ringer gives no hint of the behind-the-scenes efforts required to orchestrate a fundraising drive, whatever the charity. Givers abound on both sides of the kettle. Spend part of a day talking to Salvation Army officials and kettle workers, and a touching picture emerges of dedicated people logging long hours to raise millions of dollars the old-fashioned way - a dime, a quarter, a dollar at a time.
"It's not glamorous," says one Salvation Army spokesman. "It's hard."
Yet, it can also be rewarding. Just ask Envoy Rohan Gage, who has spent his life as a member of the Salvation Army. On a balmy December Friday, Mr. Gage begins his day with a 6-to-9 a.m. kettle shift at Boston's Back Bay Station. After returning to the South End Salvation Army headquarters where he is administrator, he ferries other workers to kettle sites around the city. He gives me permission to ride along.
One passenger, who identifies herself only as Vivian, describes the work this way: "If you love people, it's nice." She will spend the day in front of a Kmart.
Another woman in the van, Alvertis Robinson, has been ringing bells for just two weeks. "People stop to thank me for being out there," she says. She works from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Like other workers hired when volunteers are in short supply, Ms. Robinson receives $6.75 an hour, minimum wage. She enjoys giving lollipops to children who make a contribution. She also hands out a small card reading: "May God richly bless you throughout the year."
The veteran here today is Carlos Demelo, who emigrated from Portugal 17 years ago. For 10 years he has spent December ringing bells in South Boston. Speaking of his work, he says, "I feel happy."
What doesn't make Mr. Demelo and other kettle workers happy is bad weather. "It's hard when it's freezing - rain, snow, cold," he says. "My fingers freeze, my feet freeze." Ironically, bad weather can be good for contributions. Passersby dig a little deeper out of sympathy for shivering bell ringers.
Gage has been ringing bells since he was 15. As he jitneys passengers to their respective sites, he offers an insider's view of kettle drives. Most locations don't do well on Mondays and Tuesdays. Contributions pick up as the week progresses and as Christmas approaches. Shifts get longer when stores extend December hours.
Gage sees firsthand the needs these collections help to meet. In the past month, he has accepted applications from 2,500 families who need coats, toys, and food. Some cannot pay their utility bills.
This year, the demand at food banks and shelters is soaring nationwide, charitable groups say. At the same time, some charities are reporting a drop in contributions. Salvation Army officials say it is too early to gauge response to the kettle drive. In a random sampling of the first week's contributions, one town in Alaska was up 120 percent, while a town in Oregon was down 58 percent. In other areas, income remained about the same as last year.
Music definitely helps contributions, says Capt. John Ducksworth, a Salvation Army administrator. "You take a kettle that has a bell, and you might raise $75. You put a horn there, and you might triple that."
One trumpeter, Zachary See, sports a patriotic red-white-and-blue knitted cap as he talks about his early shift at Boston's South Station. "I love it," he says. "It's nice to put a little smile on people's faces as they hop off the train. I can't smile back when I'm playing the horn, so I just give them the wink of an eye."
Later the same day, music also plays a role at the kettle in front of Boston's Prudential Center. Maj. Susan Dunigan sings Christmas carols as she rings her bell. As a passerby puts money in the slot, she interrupts "Silent Night" just long enough to say, "Thank you, Merry Christmas, God bless."
"A lot of people don't go to church anymore," she explains. "They don't know the words to Christmas carols. I'm singing them the Christmas story." She has been ringing bells for 30 years.
Like workers in every occupation, bell ringers can't always forget their jobs at the end of the day. As Demelo says, "Sometimes when I go to sleep, I hear bells ringing in my head - ling, ling, ling, ling, ling."
That ling-ling-ling may or may not be a lullaby for him. For the rest of us, the bells echoing through the December air serve as gentle reminders that all charities still depend heavily on the kindness of strangers.