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The Salvation Army Bell Ringers are a well established holiday tradition. Along with sprigs of holly, candy canes and eggnog, the omnipresent bell ringers are among the lasting images of the holidays. They help to change the mood and segue from Thanksgiving and the celebration of earth’s bounty with its pumpkins and pilgrims to the season of giving and sharing.
The Salvation Army has a long history of social work – from thrift stores to disaster relief, providing day care and food and shelter for the homeless as well as adult rehabilitation centers. Although a religious organization, it is more widely known for its social services, and it is these efforts that their Christmas Bell Ringing fund drive supports.
William Booth, who started as a pawnbroker and ended up as a minister, founded the Salvation Army in 1865 in London’s poverty-stricken East End. Although responsible for many of the traditions of social work associated with the Army, he wasn’t responsible for the Christmas Kettles. Those were the idea of Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee in San Francisco. In 1891 he was struggling to fund a Christmas dinner for the area’s poor when he remembered how a large pot was used to collect charitable donations on a wharf in Liverpool, England.
“Salvation Army bell ringing does happen around the world, but it seems that the United States has a particularly strong presence,” said Major William Garrett, who along with his wife Major Heather Garrett, are the local Area Coordinators and Corps Officers.
Doug Alexander, a Member of the Salvation Army Central Kentucky Services Area Advisory Board, first got involved with the Army around 1980. Apart from a couple of years when travel prevented him, he has been a volunteer in some capacity ever since and the annual Christmas Kettle Drive has been a constant for him throughout that time.
“One of the real joys of bell ringing is that it is something you can share with family and friends.” Alexander said.
In the 1990’s he started organizing volunteers from his church, South Elkhorn Christian. “It’s one of the easiest and most rewarding things you can do.” Alexander begins organizing his church volunteer group in October. “We ask people to ring in one-hour increments. We pick the days we want to ring, work out a location with the Army and then the only thing to do is remind people to show up,” he said.
Bell ringing volunteers in Lexington number in the hundreds. With as many as 40-50 Kettle locations throughout Fayette County, it can sometimes be hard to recruit enough people to fill the nine or ten hours of activity a day.
For Alexander, the best part of bell ringing is knowing that every dollar that goes into a Kettle is going to this community. “I tell my volunteers, ‘Ring for an hour, and help others for the entire year’.” All the money raised in the Red Kettle Campaign stays in the three-county area served by the Central Kentucky Area Services Unit – Fayette, Jessamine and Scott Counties.
Before Covid the Army was raising $500,000 - $600,000 a year from the Kettle Campaign and other programs like the Angel Tree. Last year they raised about $350,000. The pandemic had a major impact and the hours and number of Kettles was limited. This year however they are being cautiously optimistic and have a goal for the Christmas season effort of $200,000.
For Doug Alexander, organizing a group to ring bells for the Salvation Army is one of the easiest and most rewarding things anyone can do during the Holiday Season. “It is also a ton of fun,” he said. “I tell my bell ringers every year that all you have to do is ring, smile and say Merry Christmas, even sing if you want to.”
To ring bells for the Salvation Army or volunteer for any of the Army’s other programs during the holidays, call 859-252-7706. •