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‘Why Do You Do That?’: A Bell Ringer’s Tale

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Salvation Army Bell Ringers collect funds for charity. (Getty Images)

Salvation Army Bell Ringers collect funds for charity. (Getty Images)

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By a Salvation Army volunteer

Most of my life I have tried my best to avoid eye contact with strange men. But, for 8 hours each year I smile at all of them — women, too.

I am a volunteer bell ringer for the Salvation Army.

The other day I told a friend of mine (and he’s a super nice guy, by the way) about it, and he asked me:”Why do you do that?”  He just couldn’t wrap his mind around why I would want to stand in one spot for 4 hours at a time, ringing a bell and collecting money for other people.

Am I doing it for work? Nope. Is it community service for a little white-collar crime? Not that either.

I explained to this friend (let’s call him “George”) that I do it because I feel like doing it.  I do it to help people. I do it cause I don’t have a ton of cash to donate. I do it because I have a little time to burn right now. And I do it because it gets me into the holiday spirit, it makes me feel good and it’s fun. (Really, it is fun).

They say $10 can feed a person for a month. If you collect $200 (or more) just by standing there, think about what that money could do.  They never have enough volunteers, so every empty spot means fewer toys for kids who have none and fewer free holiday meals for families in need.

Anyone can be a bell ringer. All you do is sign up online (I recommend signing up in early November … especially if you want to secure one of the rare and much-coveted indoor spots).  The Salvation Army is a Christian organization, yes, but don’t have to be a member of their church, any church, or even be religious to ring the bell.  All volunteers are welcome.

And you’ll find that it’s not just Christians who donate. People of all colors, races, nationalities and religions have put money in my kettle. Ringing at Oakland Mall is rather like ringing at an international airport, and it’s a great place for people watching!  Anyone is just as likely to give. (It was once my observation that hipsters do not donate, but I was proved wrong today).

My favorites are the kids. Of course, it’s common for parents to hand their child a dollar and send him to drop it in … but children will give their own money.  It might surprise you, but some of these children are so generous.  Nothing makes me smile more than when a little 12 or 13-year-old girl walks up, opens her little Hannah Montana purse and pulls out some change. *You know 50 cents to a kid is like $20 to an adult … being that most of them lack an income). Teens give often, as well.

While I suggest smiling at everyone (very effective!) I always smile at kids, and wave, and say “hi.” To them you seem like someone important.  And, in general, I recommend you try to dress a bit festive (I find my super fuzzy Santa hat and a little sparkly eye shadow go a long way).

It’s great because you never know how you’ll meet or what someone will say. And, trust me, people love to talk to a bell ringer.

Well, before I quit jabbering on at you, here are  ….

Some random tips & observations:

- Always say thank you but don’t say it until they are actually putting the money in. You be surprised how often people seem to be walking up to donate, take out their wallet and then just count their money or something.

- People will comment on just about anything. “Hey, glad to see your smiling!” “You’re lucky to have this nice inside spot.” “Nice hat.” Sometimes they just say they appreciate what you’re doing.

- They also ask questions. They’ll ask why you’re doing it, where the money goes, how long you’ve been standing there and isn’t it freezing out? Just answer what you can and smile.

- Are you a girl? Guys will hit on you. (At the mall? Teenagers may hit on you.)  One time a guy asked me if he could put his phone number in the kettle. I told him to go for it. (The thing is locked and I can’t get in there anyway!)

- People will try to avoid eye contact. They may smile at you. They may nod. They may scowl at you. (They may scowl at you and then donate.)

- People will mess with you.  Some think it’s funny to pretend to attempt to steal the kettle.

- People will donate one penny or they’ll give $20. Of course, you thank them all the same.

- You may witness something crazy or something great.

- Dress for the weather. It’s more than FREEZING outside and, inside the mall, it can be 90 degrees.

- Wear comfortable shoes.

- Alternate bell hands (I honestly have a blister right now).

So, you’ve got about a year to consider, so just think about it. It’s a great way to do just a little work for charity without as longterm commitment. It’s a great way to be a part of Christmas. And,  I promise you, it’s an experience you’ll never forget.

Get more information about how to volunteer and about the Salvation Army at ringthebell.org.

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