Salvation Army trails goal; seeks volunteers
One cold, blustery day this week, Mark West spent more than 10 hours standing in front of Kaufmann's on Fifth Avenue, Downtown, endlessly ringing a small brass bell.
West, 39, of the West End, was working an extended shift as a volunteer at one of the familiar red kettles that serve as a hallmark for The Salvation Army's annual holiday money-raising drive. West, a construction worker and roofer, said he simply enjoys the volunteer work. This is his third year as a Salvation Army bell ringer.
"When the winter comes, if I'm out of work, this is what I do," he said. "It's all about giving back to the people that gave to you. Be kind to people, and it will all come back around to you."
This year, as in other recent years, The Salvation Army is concerned about finding enough volunteer bell ringers, such as West, to staff 500 kettle locations in the organization's 28-county Western Pennsylvania Division, including about 150 kettles in Allegheny County. The need for volunteers is even more critical now because of a slow economy and major layoffs in the Pittsburgh region, said Salvation Army spokeswoman Ginny Knor.
"The economy is depressed, and a lot of people who may have been donors in the past are now clients, or they are marginally employed," she said. "The impact of US Airways' layoffs alone is significant."
Although needs have increased, the organization is $60,000 behind its money-raising effort of 2001, Knor said. Last year, the kettle campaign, which supplements The Salvation Army's overall money-raising effort, collected $587,000 in Allegheny County. The goal for Allegheny County this holiday season, including the kettle campaign and direct mail solicitations, is $1 million.
The Salvation Army's holiday campaign in the region officially kicks off today, coinciding with Kaufmann's Celebrate the Season Parade, Downtown. The parade, co-sponsored by Kaufmann's and WPXI-Channel 11, is from 9 to 11 a.m. Its route begins at Mellon Arena and travels down Fifth Avenue to Kaufmann's.
The Christmas kettle tradition dates to 1891, when a Salvation Army captain in San Francisco used a large pot to collect donations for helping with Christmas dinner for the area's poor. By 1895, 30 Salvation Army corps along the West Coast were using kettles. The idea took hold in the East in 1898.
In recent years, The Salvation Army has depended on as many as 3,500 volunteers just to staff kettles in Allegheny County, with many more bell ringers at other kettle locations throughout western Pennsylvania. About 85 percent to 90 percent of the workers are volunteers. The volunteers receive small meal allowances if they work scheduled shifts. The organization pays minimum wage — $5.15 per hour — for workers who staff locations where volunteers are not available.
A kettle at an active location can generate up to $150 a day, raising about $3,000 during the holiday season, Knor said. The money helps provide food, clothing and medical services to the needy.
Until the late 1990s, as many as half of the bell ringers at Salvation Army kettles were people on welfare, many of whom volunteered out of gratitude for help they received from the organization. Changes in the welfare system forced many of those people off public assistance and into jobs.
As a result, many more corporate volunteers are needed.
"PNC Bank always gives us hundreds of volunteers on company time," Knor said. "They have a group of people who rent Victorian Christmas costumes."
Melissa McGaw is a Salvation Army associate who coordinates volunteers for the kettle campaign. She said that Downtown kettle locations are filling up quickly with volunteers, but more are needed across the county.
Typically, volunteers range in age from children who accompany their parents at kettle locations, teens who are out of school for the holidays, to elderly bell ringers who have volunteered during many Christmas seasons.
Cynthia Sanders, 56, of Jeannette, Westmoreland County, has volunteered as a bell ringer for 28 years, the past 12 years at the DeLallo's Italian Grocery in Jeannette.
"It's nice helping people out, knowing that I'm doing something good, and you get to meet a lot of people," she said.
More volunteers are needed to staff other kettles in Jeannette, according to Melissa Fereday, the Salvation Army's resource development manager for Westmoreland, Washington and Fayette counties.
To volunteer as a Salvation Army kettle worker, call (412) 394-4861