In an age when stores and banks discourage cash and more people are donating online, the Salvation Army’s red kettle collection seems like a dated and perhaps ineffective way to raise money.
The iconic kettles, manned by cheerful bell-ringers, encourage shoppers to drop-in change on their way in and out of stores to support the Salvation Army, one of the country’s oldest charities, formed in 1865. In Central Texas, the red kettles continue to raise significant funds for the nonprofit, and that’s all thanks to enthusiastic volunteers, says Laura Spradlin, a Salvation Army Austin service center director.
Spradlin is one of the many staff members who manage the more than 400 volunteer bell-ringers across Travis and Williamson counties. “Most people think the bell-ringers are all people in need,” she said. “But that’s not the case. These are volunteers who want to give back to the community and have a spirit of giving.”
Spradlin says many of them have their own story of why they give, such as those who have benefited from Salvation Army programs in the past or who are carrying on a family tradition.RELATED: Austin Salvation Army moves ahead on new shelter, command center
Volunteer Lonna Iles inherited the bell-ringing bug from her mother, who volunteered into her 80s before passing away the day after Christmas in 2015. “I guess it was being around my mom and seeing what it did for her,” said Iles. “She took care of everybody.”
Iles says she never gets tired of ringing the bell, and Spradlin says the sound can can literally ring in the season for shoppers. “They get out of their car and hear it, and for a lot of them, that’s when they feel like it’s Christmas,” she said. “When they see that kettle, they’re happy to give.”
Any amount is accepted, says Jan Gunter, a Salvation Army spokesperson, and every amount is given. Young children walk up with coins while others drop in a check they’ve been carrying around to put in the kettle. “It all adds up,” said Gunter.
In fact, in 2016, the Salvation Army’s 100 kettles placed across two counties raised about $335,000. Funds collected support local service centers and programs for families at risk of homelessness and people in recovery.MORE GIVING CITY: Man finds unique way to donate a house to charity
Volunteers can still sign up to be a bell ringer, on the Salvation Army Austin’s website, and families and groups are welcome, as long as there’s someone over 18 years old present. Training takes about five minutes, says Spradlin, and you’re lent the red apron and a bell. Most shifts are one to two hours, and there are shifts available through Christmas Eve.
“It’s so simple and so rewarding,” said Iles. “You get to see that there are people still out there who are kind and giving. The friendlier you are, the more people open up.”
Iles adds that she never asks for a donation. Instead, she greets people with, “Merry Christmas” on their way in, and, “Have a great day!” on their way out.
“Our volunteer bell ringers are doing it because it means something to them,” said Spradlin, “Once you become a bell ringer and realize what that means, you’re devoted.”
Giving City Austin
This article is published through a partnership with Giving City Austin, which reports on the area’s nonprofit community. Read more Giving City stories at GivingCityAustin.com.