Over the holiday I was a bell ringer for The Salvation Army.
Ringing the bell for one of the most charitable organizations in existence is one of those things I'd promised for years that I would do. During the holidays I rarely pass by a red kettle without putting something in. I also shop their thrift stores, although I often feel that I'm the one benefiting ($14 for a new "Made in U.S.A." wool blanket: priceless).
The Salvation Army pays bell ringers, and someone had signed up for Hotchkiss, but that person didn't show up, according to Billie with the Delta Salvation Army. The Hotchkiss Lions Club stepped in to help where it could.
"God bless you," said Billie when I told her I wanted to volunteer.
I've never needed emergency food or shelter, which for many isn't an option, but rather a necessity. I was inspired to make this THE year after speaking to many dedicated people in the area who make the holidays, and in some cases the entire year, better for those who need a helping hand.
Organizations like the Hotchkiss K-8 School's Helping Hands program and Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks and Paonia Christian Fellowship Church food pantries provide assistance to local communities, which we all know are struggling from a decline in good-paying coal mining jobs. The Loving Spoonful in Paonia provides meals for a donation every other Wednesday, and over the holidays, the annual free Thanksgiving and Christmas day dinners were served in Hotchkiss for the 17th consecutive year.
This is just a sample of the generosity and good deeds happening in the North Fork area.
My first donation was from a woman who said her son benefited from a Salvation Army adult rehabilitation program in Grand Junction. She shoved a bill into the slot, telling me with teary eyes that she is forever grateful for how the program helped him. She said she will continue to put money in the kettles every chance she gets.
While a few people never looked my way, most passers-by said hello and Merry Christmas, whether or not they donated. Most thanked me for standing out in the cold for a good cause. Almost everyone expressed gratitude for the program. One gentleman dropped in a coin and joked that it was a Krugerrand, a gold coin which someone managed a week before Christmas to sneak into a kettle in Fort Collins for the 16th consecutive year -- although I didn't actually see his coin. Three donors said they wished they had more to give, and one said that if she was a millionaire she'd fill the kettle.
The weather barely reached 30 degrees, my feet and hands got cold, and my back was hurting from shoveling snow like I'm 20 years old, all of which made time seem to pass very slowly. Despite being way out of my comfort zone, I committed to two hours of bell ringing and I wasn't about to quit early. I thought of those who stand out in the cold because they have nowhere else to go, and was grateful for the temporary discomfort.
As the time dragged on and the discomfort grew, I tried to imagine who might benefit from my efforts -- those who have lost their jobs, are injured, have lost their homes or their families, and those who never recovered from the 2008 recession. Everyone has a story, if we just listen.
The Delta Salvation Army hadn't yet tallied the results of this year's kettle drive, but if it's like the rest of the country, donations are down. The day I rang the bell, a story in the Grand Junction paper reported that donations are down in Mesa County. The organization is grappling with where to make cuts to its year-round programs.
There's reason for concern. Among the staggering statistics from the organization Feeding America, in 2014 46.7 million people in the U.S. lived in poverty, including 15.5 million children under the age of 18 and 4.6 million seniors 65 and older. The Salvation Army continues to see a rise in demand for services, and in 2014 gave assistance to 30 million people nationwide.
By being a bell ringer, I learned that money collected in Delta County remains in the county. According to a Delta Salvation Army manager, the money will be used to maintain year-round programs including the food pantry, assistance for payment of small bills, and providing of emergency shelter.
The Red Kettle program runs through Christmas Eve, but the Salvation Army's work goes on and donations are accepted throughout the year. They provide hunger relief and support youth camps, adult programs, prison ministries, Veterans Affairs services and a long list of other programs. Since its formation in 1865, The Salvation Army has helped keep women and children safe from sex trafficking.
I think we all want to give when and where we can, which is why I chose to be a bell ringer. Standing out in the cold ringing a tiny bell is a humbling experience.
At least the sun was shining and the wind wasn't blowing.