Tough year for kettle campaign

December 16, 2018

Joe Stellhorn could be doing handyman jobs : mostly indoors : but he is spending a lot of time outside in near-freezing weather, hoping people show a little charity.

Several times a week, 12 hours a day, Stellhorn can be found standing near one of those familiar red kettles, bell in hand.

People who drop coins and other currency into the kettles tend to have a story.

“When you ring the bell, the people tell you what the Salvation Army has done for them, so you realize the Salvation Army is more than bus tickets and a food bank,” Stellhorn said.

He has a story, too.

Stellhorn said he used to be homeless, a victim of his tendency to get drunk and inability to keep a job. After going through a six-month Salvation Army rehab program, he said, his lifestyle became more stable.

The Salvation Army wishes it could find more people like Stellhorn. Not just for the organization to assist, but people willing to serve : standing at kettles, ringing those bells, generating the funds to help those in need.

The Kettle Campaign usually starts around Black Friday.

“This year it was definitely a lot harder, especially for paid ringers,” said Tim Smith, social service director for the Fort Wayne Salvation Army. “Honestly at this point, we don’t have enough bell ringers to fill all of our sites.”

Last year, the organization had 40 to 45 bell ringers during the season. Last week, there were about 20.

The number usually dwindles after the first week of the bell-ringing season “because people realize it’s not as easy as it looks,” Smith said.

Paid bell ringers earn $7.75 an hour. Smith realizes that many people are more inclined to take jobs where they can be inside, often making more money.

The Kettle Campaign runs through Christmas Eve. The goal this year is $558,000.

As of Tuesday, the campaign was at 21 percent of its goal. In previous years, with two weeks remaining, the campaign has often reached at least 40 percent of its goal.

“Donations go up as it gets closer to Christmas, but we are used to being closer to our goal at this point,” Smith said last week.

The Salvation Army faces more than the challenge of attracting : and keeping : bell ringers. Many people who pass the kettles are carrying credit and debit cards for shopping.

“There are more people that don’t carry cash anymore,” Smith said. “And people shop more online, and that means they’re not going to be out at the stores.”

Online donations to the Salvation Army have increased in recent years : but “not enough to compensate for the decline in our kettles,” Smith said.

At some locations, the organization has started using DipJars, small devices that allow people to swipe a credit card and donate $5. Smith said the Salvation Army is still evaluating where that option has been most successful.

Day to day, the Salvation Army staffs locations where it has permission for the kettles, relying on the volunteers and paid ringers who commit.

“There are certain stores that have higher volume of traffic that we try to fill first, like the mall and then the bigger department stores or the Walmarts,” Smith said.

First-time ringer

Ashley Peterson, a part-time massage therapist, had her first bell-ringing experience this year, although she has experience volunteering with other Salvation Army programs.

Peterson’s 4-year-old daughter, Elsalee, helped during the one-hour slot. They were stationed inside Glenbrook Square, near the mall entrance to J.C. Penney.

“It was fun, getting to interact with people and seeing the Christmas spirit come alive in Fort Wayne, mostly because my daughter was there and people love to see little children doing that kind of thing,” Peterson said.

Her daughter seemed to enjoy it.

“Of course, ringing the bells when you’re 4 is always fun. You get to be loud,” Peterson said.

She has a 7-year-old and a husband who are also signed up to help before this year’s campaign ends.

“We try to do it with our kids so that they are brought into the world of giving back at a young age,” Peterson said.

She and her family have a Salvation Army story. Her daughter was born prematurely and also developed an infection, resulting in an extended hospital stay.

A Salvation Army representative who Peterson had connected with on Facebook reached out and offered assistance.

“They filled our trunk with groceries, and shampoo and diapers and all sorts of things,” Peterson recalled.

So the bell ringing, along with other volunteer work for the organization, is one way of giving back.

“I would just encourage people to give it a try,” she said last week. “It can be an hour of your time, and in just that hour of ringing a bell, that might bring in enough to sponsor 10 families at Christmas or to take groceries to families with children in the hospital. It’s a rewarding experience with really very little demand from you.”

Old pro

Stellhorn, 57, may be one of Fort Wayne’s more memorable bell ringers. This is his 11th year, but he suits up in what he calls an Elmer Fudd outfit : a black and red plaid coat, drawn snugly around his waist with a black belt. And he has a matching hat.

The getup might be one reason that shoppers can’t easily pass by Stellhorn.

But he also doesn’t mind telling jokes or singing to get people’s attention. If you don’t make eye contact, he said, there’s a small percentage of people : probably just 15 to 20 percent : who will donate.

Stellhorn said he has helped raise more than 5,000 he’s raised at least a couple of times.

He is not short on strategy.

“You have to get people to acknowledge you,” he said. “I talk to everybody like I know them, like they’re my neighbors. You’ve got to get them to stop and look at you.”

Stellhorn has worked both as a paid and volunteer bell ringer. This year, he’s being paid.

One of his most memorable experiences was telling a woman “Merry Christmas” but seeing tears stream down her face.

“Christmas is hard on a lot of people,” Stellhorn said.

The woman attributed her emotional response to managing through the first Christmas since her husband had died. She also had a daughter who was battling cancer.

“The next thing you know,” Stellhorn said, “we had a prayer circle with all these people coming together to pray.”


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