Salvation Army Bell Ringers Carry On Century-Old Donation Drive Tradition

By Patrick Butler
Patrick Butler
Patrick Butler
December 17, 2021 Updated: December 17, 2021

The Salvation Army’s bells are ringing throughout America once again this year with volunteers blanketing virtually every zip code.

For more than 120 years the Red Kettle drive, as it is called, has been a familiar, iconic sight, ranging from the streets of New York to the far-less traveled byways of remote America.

There’s not a zip code in the country that is not covered in some way by the Salvation Army, captain Jeremy Walker in Tyler, Texas, told The Epoch Times on Dec. 14.

Most of the people doing the heavy lifting nationwide in any community are unpaid workers. These year-round laborers exemplify some of the best qualities of sacrificial volunteering the country has to offer, Tyler said.

The Red Kettles collect funds for Christmas meals, presents for children, seasonal joy, and companionship for those who need it, but it is far more than that, Walker said.

“The proceeds from local Red Kettles are used to fund most of the programs a Salvation Army center in your community runs the entire year,” he said.  “That includes meals, beds, social services, job training, rehab programs, visitations, disaster relief, human trafficking advocacy, senior centers—anything we do, in whatever location that helps people get back on their feet again.”

Millions of dollars will be collected nationwide this year from countless small donations dropped by passersby into the kettles. According to the Salvation Army Web site, 82 cents of every dollar finds its way to fund their programs. Whatever is collected in a local Red Kettle drive will stay in that community, said Walker.

 

Epoch Times Photo
An unidentified woman with a child makes a donation to the Red Kettle drive of the Salvation Army of Tyler, Texas, as ringer Jeffrey Gordon give thanks and Christmas greetings. Dec. 14, 2021. (Patrick Butler/The Epoch Times)

Heart of a Giver

In East Texas Jeffrey Gordon, 43, stands next to a red kettle, ringing a melodious bell in front of a Wal-Mart center. He’s in Lindale, population circa 4,000, and nearing his final hours of a long 10-hour shift. Gordon, however, continues to smile, giving season’s greetings to people going in or coming out of the store. He breaks away for a few precious moments to talk about the experience.

“It’s really humbling to see and talk to these people giving, especially when it seems obvious some are giving out of their needs,” he said. “There are all types donating—families, women with children and grandparent types. They put in their coins or dollar bills and say, ‘Merry Christmas.’ They’re so gracious and generous. It’s really touching.”

Though most of the donations are small, sometimes the giving gets bigger.

“I saw someone putting in a hundred dollar bill not too long ago,” he said. “It’s hard to believe sometimes.”

The Heart of a Volunteer

There really isn’t a typical profile of a bell-ringing volunteer, Walker said.

“The bells are rung by everybody and anybody,” he said. “We see families going out to ring bells; grandparents with their grandkids; multiple generations; every walk of life and every nationality.”     Even the local sheriff’s department in his area is involved, he said.

“This year in Tyler we have the First Responders Challenge and it includes the fire department, the police department, EMS, Air One, and the Sheriff’s department.  They go for a whole day, ring the bells and the winner gets a “traveling” trophy. A local car company donated $10,000 so we could get bikes for children. We split the funds between five Wal-Marts in our area and bought the bikes for distribution at Christmas. It’s a community-wide effort and it’s amazing because it’s people getting out and helping other people.”

Walker’s wife, Michele, is also a Salvation Army in Tyler.

“It is not an exaggeration to say our volunteers put in thousands of long hours each month, year-round,” Mrs. Walker said. “The work is demanding and never-ending, but they do it, month after month.”

As a result, she said, volunteering can be emotional and taxing.

“Whether it’s a hospital visit, or holding someone’s hand while they are dying, or sitting with someone and listening to their life story, it’s always about people, people, people,” she said. “That’s the way it’s been since our founding in London, more than 150 years ago. That’s our tradition.”

 

Epoch Times Photo
Captain Jeremy Walker, Commander of the Tyler Corps of the Salvation Army of East Texas, is in charge of all Red Kettle activities in Smith County, Texas and says bell ringing volunteers “Come from all walks of life.” (Patrick Butler/The Epoch Times)

The Nation Locks Arms

Less familiar to the public, but well-known to professional first responders, are the Salvation Army canteen trucks. They converge from various states rushing to fire, earthquake, and weather-related disasters throughout the country, at any time or any place. Jeremy Walker was the Disaster Incident Commander representing Texas when Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana in August. As a result, he is familiar with what the organization is doing after tornadoes in Kentucky.

“There are many stages to get people through when it comes to a disaster,” he said. “We are there with practical, physical things, yes, but we also give emotional and spiritual care for people who may be at their lowest point. It’s important to be holistic in our approach and not just let it be a physical thing.”

The Texas Incident Team in Louisiana stayed long after the hurricane left, which is typical of the Army, he said.

“During Ida, there was a big command center that we were part of for a couple of months. We had two teams going out to those little bayous, getting people fed and to help out.  During every disaster I’ve worked I get very passionate about it because you see the community coming together. It’s a time when you see this nation lock arms, go to work and dig people out. I’m so proud to be part of that.”

We Do This Every Day

Despite all the help, Jeremy Walker said, “There is a big lack of bell ringers this year, here in Tyler. We’d love to be 100 percent volunteers but that’s not the case because of Covid, we think.”

He’s had to come up with some creative alternatives on his own, while Michele attended to the annual Angel Tree gift-giving for needy children with a women’s auxiliary that numbers 300 volunteers. People in the general public, choose a child to give to at Christmas, and the women make sure all are provided for. Jeremy Walker, meanwhile, is in charge of the big red kettles.

“Our goal this year with kettles is to be 80 percent volunteers and 20 percent paid, but that’s okay,” he said.  “We don’t mind helping people get a little pocket change during Christmas. We pay on the lower end of the pay scale and it’s some help to them. For some reason, it’s just really hard to get more people to want to volunteer right now, but hopefully, that will change by next year.”

Gordon said, “It doesn’t seem like it’s very important to ring bells, but really…it is. There’s a bit of a shortage of ringers this year so that’s why I’m out here doing 10 hours.”

At the well-attended Thanksgiving meal the Army staff and volunteers serve every year, Jeremy Walker said he gets the same question from new workers.

“They always seem amazed at what they are seeing, all the people and food and  say, ‘Captain, do you do this every year?’ and I say, ‘We do this every day.”

A Solution, Not a Band-Aid

Asked what she wished people knew about the Salvation Army, Michele Walker said, “I think most people don’t understand that all Army officers are ordained ministers. This may be one of our most unintended secrets.  My husband and I graduated from the Salvation Army’s own seminaries, entering as cadets and graduating as lieutenants.   That is why the Army does what it does and why we love people the way we do. First and foremost we are a church.”

“We don’t want to be just a band-aid,” said Jeremy Walker. “We want to be a solution. We want to be more than a temporary physical fix.”

The Walkers both seem to be typical of the tireless Salvation Army vision.

“This work we do is hard and not easy,” Jeremy Walker said. “There’s a lot to it, but it’s rewarding because we are changing lives—and we’re not just changing lives for right now, but changing lives forever and that’s what we’re after. That’s the goal.”