Holiday bells ring out

By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Perhaps nothing illustrates the power and infectiousness of volunteerism better than the way the Salvation Army has reinvigorated its signature annual Red Kettle program.

     John McHugh of the Rotary Club of Santa Rosa rings a bell for the Salvation Army in front of the CVS pharmacy on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa on Friday. McHugh is one of about 400 volunteer bell ringers manning kettles in Sonoma County. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)


John McHugh of the Rotary Club of Santa Rosa rings a bell for the Salvation Army in front of the CVS pharmacy on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa on Friday. McHugh is one of about 400 volunteer bell ringers manning kettles in Sonoma County. (JOHN BURGESS / The Press Democrat)

Five years ago, the charity’s main fundraiser paid bell ringers minimum wage to man kettles outside retail and grocery stores around the Sonoma County.

But many who accepted those jobs were poor themselves and lacked the requisite holiday cheer needed to drive donations, said Jennifer Freitas, volunteer coordinator for the Salvation Army of Sonoma County.

So the board decided to switch to an all-volunteer system, and Freitas said the program’s success has surged ever since.

The number of bell ringers has quadrupled to about 400 this year and donations are at record highs, closing in on $200,000, Freitas said.

“It has grown amazingly since then,” she said.

After a volunteer luncheon to rally the troops on Nov. 14, this year’s fundraising effort began in earnest Nov. 16 and will go through 4 p.m. Christmas Eve.

It’s the Salvation Army’s largest fundraiser by far, helping support a variety of programs for the needy across the county.

This year there are 40 locations around the county, mostly outside grocery stores like Safeway and G&G Market. Ringers range from teens to 90-year-olds, and many enjoy a little friendly competition of seeing who can raise the most donations.

Most of the money is donated in coins and small bills, but people have been known to bust out the big bills when they hear those bells ringing.

“We’ve had a number of hundred dollar bills placed in kettles. We love seeing those,” Freitas said.

A decade ago someone even dropped a gold Krugerrand in a kettle — two years in a row. The South African coins are valued at about $1,250 today.

But it’s the enthusiasm and holiday spirit of the volunteers that really drives donations, Freitas said.

“You can put a good bell ringer at even a bad location and they’ll make money,” she said.

Those who make eye contact with people and exude warmth and gratitude are the ones who tend to engender to most donations, she said.

Guys like Russ Swart, a retired car salesman who spends his days greeting, waving to and regularly hugging customers at the Safeway in Bennett Valley.

Wearing a red apron adorned with “Thank You” and “I helped change a life” stickers, Swart is a fountain of yuletide cheer for holiday shoppers.

He knows people by name, inquires about the health of family members, and gets down on one knee to quiz children about the lyrics of Christmas carols.

“It’s just engaging with people. That’s all it is,” said Swart, who has been the top donation driver for the past three years, with a goal of $15,000 this year.

His secret? Swart looks for inspiration from a few things that happened during the year and tries to keep them in mind when he greets people.

The unexpected death of a friend and well-known Bennett Valley resident John Bussman was one such event. Bussman loved nothing more than standing near Swart’s kettle and passing out bills to children to give them the chance to place something in the kettle, Swart said.

Bussman’s passing reminded Swart to “focus on the here and now” and savor every interaction with others, he said.

Another inspiration was when a man named Shawn put some coins in the kettle and quietly said “They helped me.”

Swart inquired further and learned that Shawn’s substance abuse had contributed to decisions that landed him in jail before he went through a Salvation Army rehabilitation program he credited with helping him clean up his life.

“That why I do this. My reason for being out here is for guys, and women, like Shawn,” Swart said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.)