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Shawn Vestal: Bell ringers in short supply as the holiday approaches

Mikel Gates, rings the bell for the Salvation Army as he greets guests at the Fred Meyer on Thor on Wednesday, Dec 15, 2021, in Spokane, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Mikel Gates, rings the bell for the Salvation Army as he greets guests at the Fred Meyer on Thor on Wednesday, Dec 15, 2021, in Spokane, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

The late-morning temperature had barely crept above freezing, but Mikel Gates was keeping things warm at his red kettle outside Fred Meyer.

“Good morning!” he greeted a customer coming in, and then “Good morning!” to one coming out. “You have a great day now!”

Gates, 62, is a veteran bell-ringer at the Salvation Army’s red kettles. He was working the store’s south door Wednesday, and his sister, Mechelle Gates-Engle, was at the north entrance. They each have been working the kettles for eight years, and they know the keys to a successful day: a friendly demeanor and four layers of long underwear.

“I’ve got a base pair, and then a poly pair, and then a cotton pair, and then a wool pair,” Gates said, laughing.

Every now and then, someone like Janna Harvey pushed a folded bill or dropped a few clinking coins into his kettle.

Harvey, a 79-year-old Spokane woman, always plans to have a little something for the kettles.

“I make a point at every store I go in to at least have something to give,” Harvey said.

There is less cash in kettles this year than in years past, though – or fewer kettles filling up with cash, to be more precise. Like many organizations, the Salvation Army is struggling to fill paid and volunteer positions as bell-ringers, and so it is falling behind its fund-raising goals for the holiday season.

In a typical year, the organization puts out 65 to 68 red kettles at the entrances of stores around the region; this year it’s been in the 40s, and that’s affecting the fund-raising significantly. The campaign is just over halfway to its goal of $430,000.

“We just haven’t been able to get all these sites manned,” said Major Ken Perine. “We’re short volunteers and paid staff.”

The organization is also about 200 toys behind goal on its annual toy drive. In particular, toys for older kids are needed, Perine said.

“Everybody buys toys for the little ones,” he said. “We need toys for the teenage crowd.”

Perine and his organization are hoping that people will step up and help however they can in the remaining days before the holiday.

The familiar red kettles have been around a long time. This is the 130th year of the program, which originated in San Francisco in 1891 by a Salvation Army captain who wanted to provide a free Christmas dinner to the poor. The idea spread quickly to other cities, and eventually to other countries – all of which help fund the organization’s assistance programs, which help more than 4.5 million people a year during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Local programs funded by the Salvation Army include foster care for abused and neglected children, a community youth center, the Camp Gifford summer camp, a food bank, and shelter services for the homeless, including the new Way Out bridge shelter.

This year’s drive includes ways to make the kettle ring virtually, by using a credit card with its TipTap program. About 18 of the kettles this year have that option.

Most of those giving at Fred Meyer were still using bills and coins on Thursday.

At her station by the scented pine cones and propane tanks, Gates-Engles cheerfully greeted every single customer.

“Merry Christmas!” she said. “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Thank you, sir!”

She was often up and on her feet, staying moving to stay warm. She and her brother were not yet halfway into an eight-hour day.

“You gotta work hard to stay cheerful,” she said cheerfully.

Like her brother, she was buried in thick warm layers – with a big hooded coat over the top of it all, fleece boots and a face mask.

“I tell my friends I’m really a size 2,” she said with a laugh.

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