Behind the bells

Dec. 15, 2013 @ 07:08 AM

Just before 9 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 7, the Walmart in Granite Falls was beginning to bustle.

The store had been open all night, of course, but as the day began, cars started easing into parking spaces farther and farther from the front, and the swish of automatic doors settled into a steady background drone of open-and-close.

Then, promptly at 9, it started: From the store’s entrance, the clanging of bells, a sure sign that the holidays have started and the Salvation Army has set up camp for its annual Red Kettle Campaign.

On this particular day, Keith Stallings and Neal Haas manned the kettle at the left entrance of the store, greeting early risers outside the doors and, of course, shaking bells back and forth, pausing when a conversation sprang up.

Each year, individual volunteers, school groups, civic groups and churches (Stallings and Haas represent the First United Methodist Church in Granite Falls) sign up to stand for hours ringing bells and soliciting donations in front of businesses. Participating stores are staffed with bell-ringers for 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, so the Salvation Army hires seasonal staff to supplement volunteers when necessary, said Stallings, who’s also a Salvation Army board member.

As the bell-ringers kept up their musical version of soliciting on Saturday, people stopped briefly by the kettle, and the coins clinked in.

Everyone has their own style of donating, Stallings said. Some pause on their way into the store, one hand resting on the automatic door, promising they’ll donate as they leave.

Some slip behind the bell-ringers to donate without starting a conversation; the most the volunteers hear of them is the sound of their coins dancing on metal.

Some people send their kids over, pressing a few quarters into their hands and giving them a gentle push.

At Walmart, a few blue-vested employees drop in donations as they walk into work.

And, of course, some people just walk by without donating. But by the time the volunteers leave, Stallings said, the kettle is always tougher to lift.

The Salvation Army has gathered part of its revenue in red kettles since 1891, when a San Francisco captain placed one at Oakland Ferry Landing next to a sign that read, “Keep the Pot Boiling.” He used the funds to host a Christmas dinner for the poor.

Red-kettle contributions now help pay for the Salvation Army’s year-round operations, which include crisis assistance for families struck by disaster and fires, and shelter space (there are three in Hickory). For every dollar dropped into a kettle, about 85 cents is used locally, Stallings said. These days, some of those donations come from credit cards – the Salvation Army’s onlineredkettle.org allows donations to specific groups and organizations.

For those who ring bells in front of brick-and-mortar stores, the day is often peppered with conversation. Some of them are sheepish – Stallings told a story about a man at the Granite Falls Walmart who stopped to say, “If I can spend $50, $60 bucks on junk, I can give my change.”

Others want to talk about their own experience with the Salvation Army, including one man who stopped Stallings to talk about a family member’s time in one of the Hickory shelters.

“I don’t know if he gave me his last dollar or not, but he took one out of his pocket and put it in,” Stallings said.

Always, though, when the conversation stops, the red-aproned volunteers will starting ringing their bells again, asking shoppers to notice, to stop, to fish a few coins out of their pockets and give.

Always, the ringing starts again.