A day in the life of a holiday bell ringer

At 9:30 on a gray December morning, more than a dozen people crowd into a small Salvation Army office in Boston. Bell ringers for the charity's annual kettle drive, they have come to receive their assigned locations for the day.

Capt. Chuck Thomas, the commanding officer, begins with a prayer. Then he checks his list. "I'd like you at the Common," he tells a man named Tony. "You can go to Macy's," he says to Maria, a Puerto Rican woman sporting a red Santa cap and a warm smile. He assigns Daniel to Copley Square and Susan to City Hall. Soon all 13 posts are filled.

In a high-tech age, this low-tech fund-raising by America's largest charity remains an enduring anachronism. Last year's kettle campaign raised $79 million, a testament to the power of pocket change.

"We'd like to surpass last year, because there's more need now," says Theresa Whitfield at the Salvation Army national headquarters in Alexandria, Va.

For Mr. Thomas and his fellow corps officers across the country, the challenge is clear: Find enough volunteers and paid workers in a tight labor market to fill each kettle site for a month. In some areas, shortages are acute.

Consider the math. Some 20,000 kettles are scattered around the nation. Bell ringers typically put in eight-hour days, adding up to 160,000 hours daily. Multiply that by 25 days - from the kickoff on Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve, excluding Sundays - and the figure rises to 4.6 million kettle hours.

"Standing kettle," as the Salvation Army calls the role of bell ringers, is a tradition dating back to 1891. That was the year a San Francisco corps officer set out a huge soup kettle and urged passersby to "keep the pot boiling" with money. Gradually the red kettles became a holiday landmark, a familiar seasonal icon of charitable giving.

In Thomas's office, those icons have seen better days - bells are broken and kettles need repair. But money must support the most urgent part of the Army's mission: feeding the hungry and sheltering the displaced. It also provides paychecks for the minimum-wage workers who help sustain the campaign.

"We employ people who would not otherwise be able to provide for their families," Ms. Whitfield explains.

On this particular Friday morning, I am among the volunteer bell ringers in Thomas's office. He assigns me a kettle near the Public Garden and gives me a red-and-white apron that reads "You and I make the difference."

As we pick up our kettles, bells, and signs, Thomas reviews the rules: no smoking, drinking, or eating. No sitting. No visitors. "You can't accept coffee from people or any gifts," he adds. "Be cheerful. And smile. It doesn't cost anything, and it pays off."

As we leave for our respective sites, Tony observes my neophyte status. "Don't worry," he says kindly. "Just ring the bell and keep doing it, doing it, doing it."

Promptly at 10 a.m., standing near a jeweler's window glittering with diamonds and sapphires, I start ringing the bell. The first contribution, in nickels, comes from a young man. Several passersby drop in quarters. Then a three-year-old girl approaches, smiling shyly and clutching a dollar. Too small to reach the kettle, she hands me the money, then turns back to her father.

Who else gives? On this corner, donors are fairly evenly divided between men and women. They also span all ages and ethnic groups.

Who doesn't give here? People clutching coffee cups and soda cans. Shoppers heavily laden with packages. And high-tech types with cell phones clamped to their ears.

One toddler in a pink cap covers her ears with tiny mittened hands to muffle the sound of the bell. A dachshund and a German shepherd bark as they pass. But among those who stop, and even those who simply smile as they hurry past, a warm spirit prevails.

As if to illustrate the ongoing need for charitable donations, a ragged man shuffles by, one torn sole flapping with each step. Across the street, a homeless man conducts his own private kettle drive, insistently shaking coins in a red paper cup as he begs for money.

Bell ringers also serve as a sidewalk information booth. "How do I get to Park Street?" one woman asks. A bewildered young Asian woman, speaking little English, hands me a piece of notebook paper with a penciled residential address. A well-dressed woman wants a suggestion for a restaurant. Two other women need a telephone.

Even on this relatively mild December day, by the end of two hours my feet are cold. Usually, though, bell ringers log eight-hour shifts with only two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch hour.

"When it's cold, it's like being on the Rus-sian front," says Tony. He should know. One chilly day he stood at his post for eight hours - no breaks, no food - because a relief worker didn't realize he was there. Thomas admiringly calls him "Ironman Tony."

Despite the challenges, bell-ringing offers rewards beyond a modest paycheck.

"It makes me happy in my heart to help poor people," says Maria, now in her fifth year as a kettle worker.

Daniel, a soft-spoken man, finds pleasure in watching donors, children in particular, drop money in the kettle. "They feel good," he says. "They have a glowing expression."

And for the stalwart Ironman Tony, there is comfort and satisfaction in this realization: "Even the people who have a hard time, they're still God's people."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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