What reporter learned in six hours as a Salvation Army bell ringer
For as blessed as I am, I don’t donate enough of my time or money to charity.
I’m the guy who donates when asked at the register. I’ll spend money on a zoo or museum membership. When I (rarely) go to church, I’ll put money in the collection basket.
I know that’s not enough. When times got a little tough at home in my teenage years, I relied quite a bit on my local food pantry for nourishment. And there’s no bigger reminder of that than when I walk out of the grocery store and see a person jingling a bell next to a Salvation Army Red Kettle.
More often than not, I’ll rush past the kettle. I’ll nod at the holiday greeting of the bell ringer. And then I’ll let the music on my car’s radio wash away the guilt.
I don’t have cash. I don’t have the time. I have a wife and kids to spend that money on. Those are the excuses I tell myself. And there’s a voice inside me that tells me they aren’t very good.
So, this year, I decided to become that guy outside your grocery store or local mall. I’d do three 2-hour shifts ringing the bell throughout the suburbs. I figured I’d get two things: validation that I’m not the only one who dodges the kettle, and some semblance of penance for my lack of donations. Instead, I got something else.
My first bell-ringing experience was outside Carson’s at Yorktown Center in Lombard. I arrived about 10 minutes early to my shift. The red kettle awaited. A matching red apron and a handheld bell were tied to the support pole the kettle dangled from. I watched from a distance. Not a single person who walked by the kettle in that 10 minutes donated.
Then I put on the apron and a smile. I started ringing the bell and holding doors open for folks with a hearty, “Merry Christmas.” And the donations started pouring in.
That’s not to say everyone donated. During my two hours, 40 people out of 317 (about 13 percent) who walked by dropped cash in the kettle. I counted only people exiting the mall to avoid double counting.
I quickly learned how to tell if someone was going to donate.
If they were pausing before exiting the doors, they were almost certainly going to drop a few dollars in the bucket. Older folks and parents with children in tow were also much more likely to donate.
On the flip side, people who pulled out their cellphone upon seeing me never donated. If someone looked at me and moved to the exit door farthest away, the message was clear. I tried not to judge; I’m guilty of those same actions. But I could feel my self-judgment redoubling as I realized how futile my techniques for avoiding the kettle seemed to the actual ringer.
Other folks were just blatant about not giving. One lady walked right up to me to announce her plans.
“No singing, no money,” she said. I smiled. As she went into the mall I imprinted her face in my mind and waited. About 45 minutes later she emerged from the mall. I broke into an enthusiastic “Jingle Bells.” She joined in as she walked right past the kettle without donating.
The next day I spent two hours outside a Jewel-Osco in Arlington Heights. It was my first encounter with another bell ringer.
At one time in his life, Darren Moore was homeless. Now, he lives in Arlington Heights. And every year for the past five years he’s been a paid bell ringer for The Salvation Army. The faith-based charity hires bell ringers, mostly from their own clientele, to work sites that are hot spots for donations. That’s only necessary when there aren’t enough volunteers to man the posts.
In the Chicago area, about one out of every four bell ringers you see is paid for his or her efforts, according to Beverly Peterson, Fox Valley area director of development for the Salvation Army.
“Whether or not we use paid ringers just depends on how involved the local community is,” she said. “Most of the paid ringers are folks who can’t hold a job the rest of year. But for the six weeks of the Red Kettle campaign, we hire them to go out and be welcoming to people.”
Some communities, such as Crystal Lake and Rockford, are so involved with the Salvation Army that no, or almost no, paid ringers are needed.
I felt lucky to encounter Moore on my second day of bell ringing. He was a veteran of the Red Kettle Campaign. And he quickly schooled me on the tricks of the trade.
One is to bring some sort of mat to stand on. There’s no sitting down on the job. The cushion helps keep a smile on your face by avoiding tired feet.
Second, position yourself in a way that you catch some of the heat from the store when customers open the doors.
Next, if possible, use sleigh bells instead of the traditional hand clanger. The sleigh bells provide more of a jingle to your jangle and allow you to keep a holiday tune much easier.
Finally, don’t expect anything.
“My approach is that if I’m doing a good job, and I do what I’m supposed to do, I can’t worry about what happens,” Moore said. “Sometimes it depends on the customers. Sometimes it’s about the weather or time of day. But you can’t get overly or underly expectational about what you’ll get.
“I try to warm up to my customers when they are on their way into the store so they’ll remember I’m going to be here on the way out,” he continued. “But just because you say ‘Hello’ to them or ‘Merry Christmas,’ you can’t expect them to just empty their wallets.”
Point taken. Having done some true panhandling in his homeless days, Moore wasn’t judging anybody. I tried to follow his example. But I still kept count.
In two hours in Arlington Heights, I received 36 donations from 158 people (about 23 percent).
Day 3 brought me to the Blue Goose grocery store in St. Charles. Unlike Jewel-Osco, which is a major chain, permission to ring at this mom-and-pop store was negotiated locally. That seemed appropriate as all Red Kettle donations at every location throughout the country stay within the local community where the donation was received.
Everything I collected during my final stint would end up in the bank account of the St. Charles Tri-City Corps of The Salvation Army. In 2014, the branch served more than 7,700 people at its food pantry. That was more than the Elgin or Aurora branches.
That stat proved prophetic. In two hours, I collected 46 donations from 123 people, better than 37 percent. Either I was getting better at luring donors, or folks were just feeling more generous.
By the third day, I noticed I was smiling without thinking about it for most of the two hours. There was undeniably some sense of increased self-worth that came from ringing that bell to solicit money that would be used to help others.
In my teen years, I was much more active with my volunteer hours. Twenty years removed from that, I had forgotten how good it feels to give back. In the relative comfort I’d found as an adult with two jobs and a wife and kids, I’d lost proximity to what it meant to struggle but find someone or someplace that could help. Chatting with Darren Moore helped restore that.
I was not paid by The Salvation Army to be a bell ringer, but I was paid by the Daily Herald to report this story. So I decided one last thing as I put down my bell for the final time: My next paycheck will reflect my bell ringing efforts. I’m going to return to Yorktown Mall to donate my pay earned during my bell ringing.
And I might even sing “Jingle Bells” as I do it.