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VIA: USA Today

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas this morning: Snow is falling, shoppers are bundled up as they bustle into the grocery store, and Bill Schmidt, 63, is ringing a hand bell non-stop near a bright red kettle as he collects donations for the Salvation Army.

He greets passers-by enthusiastically even if they don’t make a donation, and after people drop coins and bills into the kettle, he exclaims, “Thank you very much. Have a beautiful day. God bless you. Merry Christmas.”

Schmidt, a lawyer with a busy private practice in a suburb of Washington, D.C., has volunteered here every Saturday during the holiday season for 17 years because, he says, he believes in the work done by the Salvation Army. That work includes feeding the hungry, giving Christmas gifts and food to those in need, providing disaster relief and running rehab centers, food pantries and thrift stores.

“God calls all of us to various services, and this is what he called me to do,” Schmidt says. “Jesus said, ‘Whatever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me,’ and I believe no one in this country should go to bed hungry.”

Across the nation, an estimated 25,000 bell ringers — most are volunteers but some are paid — have been working throughout the holiday season, standing outside grocery stores and malls, says Maj. George Hood, a spokesman for the Salvation Army, a Christian-based charity.

The money is used to provide Christmas gifts and food for local needy families. What’s left goes to support the local group’s philanthropic work, he says.

The kettle program was started in 1891 by a young Salvation Army captain in San Francisco who needed money to feed the area’s poor. So he placed a big black kettle for donations on the dock of Fisherman’s Wharf, Hood says.

Since then, it has expanded across the United States and around the world. It also has gone beyond the kettles: The Salvation Army now accepts online donations at

Last year, about $130 million was raised nationally during the Red Kettle Christmas Fundraising Campaign, up from $118 million in 2007, Hood says.

This year, the recession has been a drain on donations. Collection efforts overall are behind about 9% from last year, he says. This week’s record-breaking snowstorm along the East Coast hasn’t helped.

“Saturday we took a real hit with the snowstorm that came through the Northeast corridor,” Hood says.

“We couldn’t put bell ringers out at all that day, and the Saturday before Christmas is our biggest kettle day. I’m estimating that we lost $5 (million) to $6 million that single day just in the Northeast market alone.”

At the same time, requests for the Salvation Army’s assistance are up 60% to 100% in communities nationwide because of rising unemployment and the effect of the recession on many Americans’ daily lives, Hood says.

“People are telling us that in the past they have been a donor, but this year they have to come to us for assistance,” he says.

“The American public has a fascinating way of digging deep when they know their neighbor is struggling. They give with their hearts, and we know they will come through again, even if it’s after Christmas with donations made online or through the mail.”

Volunteers say they have seen that firsthand:

•Jim Morris, 48, of Kensington, Md., says: “You see so many smiles on people’s faces when they give. The bell ringing really is a persistent ray of hope in bleak times. It’s rewarding mingling with people who are in a good mood, because most are Christmas shopping. People who give money almost always thank us, and they are the ones giving.”

•Sharon Holman, 71, of Arlington, Texas, who has been a ringer for more than 20 years, says that last year a man put in 10 $100 bills. They were wrapped in a $1 bill.

•Valerie Mitchell, 54, and her husband, Larry, 71, of Davenport, Iowa, dance to Christmas carols as they collect money. She says holiday shoppers dance with them. Some people run back to their cars to get money to donate.

“It’s inspiring to see all the goodness in people,” she says.

•Conly Mims, 55, of Los Angeles says he has run across people who say they are donating a little extra this year because they know times are tough. Others are being more cautious before they donate. “People still want to give,” he says, “but they are a little hesitant about how much they should give.”

Schmidt donates to the Salvation Army himself but believes his service at this kettle is important because it gives others a chance to be generous, too.

“We are offering goodness here,” he says. “We are giving people an opportunity to give.”

He says most people put in $1 or loose change, but occasionally people donate $20 or more. Sometimes they write checks. Once a woman gave him a check for $400.

The most money he raised in one day was when a friend, fellow lawyer Ed Weiner, made a sign that said his law firm would match the day’s donations. Says Schmidt: “I raised almost $1,500, so he wrote a check to the Salvation Army for 1,500 bucks.”

A bell ringer’s strategy

On this day Schmidt is bundled up for wintry weather — wearing two pairs of socks, sturdy work boots, long underwear and a heavy jacket. For part of the day, he stands out in the snow in an uncovered area in front of a Giant Food store to greet people.

“You raise more money out here,” he says. “People feel sorry for you. If you can garner some sympathy, it helps. You’ve got to greet everybody — that’s the secret to it.”

Some people seem eager to donate, and others won’t look him in the eye as they pass by. Children almost always want to give and get such joy from doing it, he says.

“They like the bell, and they want to give money. Children are absolutely wonderful.”

Schmidt remembers the time a girl was pulling on her mother’s skirt as they left the grocery store, saying: “Mommy, mommy, I want to give the man money. I can change the world.”

The Salvation Army bell ringers traditionally don’t wear Santa Claus suits. They wear a red Salvation Army apron, and some occasionally wear Santa hats.

“We encourage people to wear Santa hats and sing,” says Holman, who’s from Arlington, Texas. “We have some groups that sing carols. We have one or two play a trumpet. Anything to attract attention to the kettle in a tasteful way.”

But Schmidt has learned from experience not to wear a Santa Claus costume. The year he rented one, children wouldn’t get close to him.

“They were afraid of Santa,” he says. “They didn’t want to come up and put their money in the kettle, so I did very poorly in terms of donations that day.”

Sometimes people share stories about how the Salvation Army has touched their lives.

A woman once told Schmidt she donates every time she sees the kettle because one year when she was a child and her father was out of work, the Salvation Army provided Christmas gifts and food for her family, which included seven children.

Another time, Schmidt says, a man who donated money said he had been among the first responders at the Pentagon after it was hit by a hijacked jet on Sept. 11, 2001. The man recalled that the Salvation Army had been on the scene, feeding and taking care of emergency crews.

As donors walk away, many thank Schmidt for his charity work. But not everyone is happy to see him. Schmidt recalls that one day a well-dressed woman walked by him and said, ‘Why do you always make me feel so guilty?”

Schmidt says he responded: “I don’t want you to feel guilty. If you do feel guilty, don’t give. I want you to give from the heart. If it will make you feel better, then give.”

She started to walk away and then turned around and put $20 into the kettle, and said, “You know, you are absolutely right — I do feel good.”

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