At first glance, 4-year-old Courtney Black seemed a tad young to fill the boots of a Salvation Army bell ringer.
But as the blue-eyed tot with a flaxen pony tail handed out candy canes Saturday to shoppers entering the Mission and Hamilton Safeway, adults opened their wallets.
“I’ve been really surprised. A lot of people are walking up and putting money in the kettle,” said her father, Phillip Black.
Phillip, Courtney and her brother, Joshua Black, 5, were among two dozen residents of the Salvation Army’s transitional housing complex who worked as volunteer bell ringers Saturday.
“I think people are more inclined to give when they see the people that the money really benefits,” said Gerriann Armstrong, social services director for Spokane’s Salvation Army.
The residents were part of a communitywide effort. Members of Lions, Kiwanis and other clubs also staffed kettles in an effort to save the organization a day of wages and increase money for programs.
The monthlong drive raises about $150,000 of the organization’s $4 million annual budget, which pays for a homeless shelter, transitional housing, emergency foster care, a kids’ camp and other services that benefit 50,000 people annually.
In spite of Target stores disallowing the bell ringers this year, donations were up by $7,000 during the first 16 days of the drive, said Christy Markham, the Salvation Army’s development associate.
The 33-unit transitional housing complex opened in July and offers families apartments for up to two years while they get back on their feet financially. Resident volunteers wanted to repay the organization, which some credit for restoring hope and stability to their families.
“It’s helped stabilize my children, and it’s a safe place to be. It’s giving me life-skills classes. I’m just really thankful,” said Victoria Garcia, a mother of three who fled domestic violence in Nevada.
Amy Farrar, a single mom with two kids, ended up at the complex after carpal tunnel syndrome caused her to lose her job and her Spokane Valley apartment.
For her, working at the red kettle is an opportunity to be part of the larger community. “In the long run, it’s good for self-esteem,” Farrar said.
Maplewood Gardens resident Phyllis Burwell missed the uniform-clad Salvation Army staff, but enjoyed the children’s enthusiastic bell ringing as she stopped to make a donation. “I think it’s a wonderful idea. They must feel good about it.”
Spokane’s Terry Hill noticed the kids’ efforts and also dropped in a donation. “They’re doing a great job out there, and they’re seeming to have fun, too.”
Armstrong said many residents have excellent job skills, but lost their homes when illness or financial challenges caused them to fall a couple of paychecks behind.
Black, a nurse who recently underwent multiple foot surgeries, worked with a disability for five years. When his feet worsened to the point where he couldn’t stand for long periods, he was fired.
The Blacks lost their South Carolina home and moved back to Spokane to be near family.
“We’ve never been homeless before. I’ve worked since I was 15. My last job, I worked there three years and never missed a day,” Black recalled. Both he and his wife found part-time jobs and – with his feet improving – Black is hopeful they’ll have a home again in two years.
“We’re just getting to the point where we almost have our bills paid. I’m just thankful for the Salvation Army.”