The Salvation Army’s red kettle donations in Salt Lake City

Story and slideshow by NATHANIEL BINGAMAN

See the Salvation Army

Stores are still playing Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” and shoppers are still anxiously looking for the perfect gift. Walking into a local retailer this holiday season, shoppers will notice not much has changed over the years.

Another constant for nearly 120 years is the Salvation Army bell ringers, who have become a staple of the holiday season. Bundled up from head to toe they ring their bells, sing songs and wear funny costumes — anything they can do to help collect donations for the many individuals who can’t afford to be in the store buying that perfect gift.

According to the Salvation Army website, the Red Kettle program began in the winter of 1891 when a Salvation Army Captain by the name of Joseph McFee was upset over the amount of poor people going hungry in San Francisco.

McFee decided he would take matters into his own hands and provide a free Christmas dinner to all of San Francisco’s poverty-stricken residents. But he needed a way to pay for the dinner. He remembered during his military days there was a giant kettle in London in which people would put money to help the poor.

He placed a similar kettle at the Oakland Ferry Landing. McFee raised enough money to feed the community and the rest is pretty much history. Today there are countless kettles across the world.

Here in Salt Lake City the Salvation Army continues what McFee started long ago. There are 91 reported kettle stands in the Salt Lake Valley and Provo, according to Salvation Army’s administrative offices, which are located at 252 S. 500 East in Salt Lake City.

The kettles bring in between $50,000 and $100,000 in Salt Lake City. But the kettles don’t fill themselves. Volunteers and employees found through different employment agencies spend long hours on their feet while trying to keep warm and raising all sorts of donations.

Bell ringers begin hitting the stores the day after Thanksgiving and they are there until Christmas Eve. The bell ringers are out Monday through Saturday, snow, rain or shine. Groups are able to sign up and take shifts from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Individuals and families are also encouraged to sign up. If individuals feel they will not be able to devote a whole day to bell ringing they can sign up for shorter shifts.

“My favorite part of my job is being able to see people giving their time to help others,” said Adriane Colvin, volunteer director for the Salvation Army.

People from all walks of life donate their time to help bring in money for those in need throughout the Salt Lake Valley. But is there a little competition between the bell ringers to see who can get the most donations?

“The people who get the most donations are usually people who do something a little more,” Covin said.

“We actually have two groups who wear ‘Star Wars’ costumes while they collect donations,” Colvin said. “Those people always seem to stay a little warmer and bring in a few more donations.”

Salt Lake City is not a place to be a Salvation Army bell ringer if you don’t enjoy the cold weather. How do they stay warm while working for up to a nine-hour shift? “Many stores will allow you to stand inside the door ways to keep warm,” Colvin said.

But a good scarf and knit cap are usually the best trick. “If you don’t have the appropriate clothing for the Utah winters we will provide it for you,” said Ray Young, a member of the Salvation Army and longtime bell ringer.

Young has been ringing a bell for the Salvation Army since 1998. “Every time I ring the bell I feel enormously grateful to be giving my time to such a good cause,” Young said. “It’s a great tradition and I’m proud to be part of it.”

In all those years of ringing a bell for the Salvation Army Young has seen his fair share of donations. His most memorable donation came his first year of bell ringing. Someone donated a number of gold doubloons valued at over $2,500 apiece.

“You always get a few ‘buh hum bug’ guys. But the majority of people are very receptive of what we do and are happy to donate,” Young said.

Along with gold doubloons Young has had people donate expensive tennis bracelets and diamond rings.

In 2010, according to the Salvation Army website, the organization served more then 30 million individuals in need, provided 60 million meals for the hungry, and sheltered 10 million people with nowhere else to go, all because people were willing to give.

The Salvation Army in Salt Lake gets thousands of donations every year. Just like ringing the bell is a yearly tradition to some, donating to the Salvation Army is a tradition for others.

“Every time I leave a store during the holidays and there is someone from the Salvation Army ringing a bell I make sure to put my spare change and sometimes a few dollars into the bucket,” said Joeseph Johnson, 22, who says he has been donating money to the red kettles for as long as he can remember.

“It just makes me feel good knowing my little bit helps,” Johnson said.

Individuals visiting the Salvation Army’s website are able to sign up for a virtual red kettle. Then, they can invite family and friends from all over to donate money to that online kettle. That is something Joseph McFee, the founder of the red kettle project, probably never dreamed he would see happen.

The Salvation Army and it’s red kettles can be found as far away as Korea. But they remain a great way to give back to people in need, either by donation of a person’s time or money. Who knew a kettle and a bell could make such a difference?