Adventures of a Salvation Army Bell Ringer
By Theresa M. Danna, M.P.W.
It was the Christmas season of 2001, just a few months after the September 11 terrorist attack. In April of the previous year, I had relocated myself and my then 22-month-old son, AJ, from Los Angeles to a small town in San Luis Obispo county, 200 miles up the California coast, thinking that “the country” would be a better place for him to grow up. Soon after the move, I was able to get fairly steady freelance work as an online course editor for a Web site based in Texas. I could work from home, and, it seemed, everything would be OK.
But then a year later, in May of 2001, I was rendered jobless as a result of the dot-com crashes. My attempts to find work with another Web site proved futile. And trying to find a local job was disastrous, as I was perceived by employers as “overqualified,” even after I removed my master’s degree from my resume. I was found ineligible for unemployment compensation because I was an “independent contractor” for the Web site, not an “employee.” I ended up on welfare and food stamps, all because I was considered “too good” to be employed in “the country.” My hopes were raised considerably in early September 2001, when I interviewed for a copy editor position at an advertising agency in San Francisco, another 250 miles up the California coast. I was the top candidate, but just as I was in negotiations about who would pay for my relocation, the terrorist attack occurred, and the ad agency’s New York headquarters immediately put a freeze on hiring. I did whatever I could to get by, including cleaning houses and selling my few possessions on eBay. I continued to scan the help-wanted ads in the local newspaper in case there was any chance at all that I could find the miracle for which I was praying. And then there it was, a few days before Thanksgiving: the San Luis Obispo Salvation Army office was recruiting bell ringers. The pay was only $6.25 per hour (California minimum wage), one fifth of what I used to earn as an editor. But any income was better than none. And, most of all, this job offered me the chance to feel useful, a possible remedy for my depression and sinking self-esteem.
After a brief interview with the kettle coordinator—also a transplant from the city who had been turned down for local work because of being overqualified—I was standing next to a red kettle with a sign that read “Sharing Is Caring” in front of the Longs drug store at the corner of Madonna Road and Los Osos Valley Road, ringing a bell, smiling, and wishing shoppers a Merry Christmas. After a few hours, my feet and lower back were aching, and I was shivering a bit in the chilly Central Coast weather (50 degrees) despite the trademark red jacket over my sweatshirt, but I was feeling elated to be needed and appreciated again.
That night I searched the Internet for the history of the Salvation Army’s kettle campaign and discovered that I was now part of a more than 100-year-old tradition. In December of 1891, a Salvation Army captain in San Francisco wanted to provide a free Christmas dinner to the area’s poor, but he was not sure how to go about collecting the funds. Then he remembered that when he was a sailor in Liverpool, England, passersby used to place charitable contributions into a large pot at Stage Landing. So he got permission to set up such a pot at the Oakland ferry landing. By Christmas of 1895, kettles were used by 30 Salvation Army corps in various locations on the West Coast. When two of the Salvation Army officers who were instrumental in setting up the initial kettles were transferred to New Jersey, the tradition continued on the East Coast. Kettles are now used in Korea, Japan, Chile, and many European countries. In the United States alone, the Salvation Army helps more than 7 million people each year at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The next day I was better prepared, wearing warmer clothes (including mittens), gel insoles in my sneakers, and a furry Santa hat that I had bought for AJ the previous holiday season. The kettle coordinator told me I could stand at the other end of the shopping center, in front of Albertson’s grocery store, if I wanted a slight change in venue. When the grocery store set up Christmas trees for sale at the entrance, I enjoyed smelling the pine when the wind blew; I rescued a few fallen branches from the ground and attached them to my kettle post.
During the second week, a camera man and reporter from KSBY, an NBC affiliate station and the only local TV station in San Luis Obispo, came out to interview me as part of a story they were doing about the lack of volunteers and donations. Though I had no advance knowledge of their visit, I graciously complied. I called AJ’s babysitter to ask her to record the evening news, as it would air before I finished my shift. The next day, about every other passerby said, “Hey, you’re the one who was on TV last night!” (In small towns, it does not take much to become a celebrity.) As the days passed, I heard comments from various people about how well the Salvation Army had helped the September 11 victims, war veterans, and others during their times of need. One woman even told me the story of how her father, as an infant, was left on a Salvation Army doorstep and raised by the charity’s staff.
But there were three passersby who touched me the most over that month. One was a former single mother who asked me how I came about doing this bell-ringing job. I briefly described my career downfall after losing my dot-com job, then being turned down for work that I was capable of doing because of being overqualified, and finally how the events of September 11 thwarted my almost-move to San Francisco. But I smiled and said that I was confident that things would turn around in the new year. After dropping a $10 bill into the kettle, she slipped a $20 bill into my hand and told me to use it to buy some Christmas gifts for my son. I still cry when I remember her empathy and kindness, a beautiful ray of light piercing one of the darkest years of my life.
On another day, a van of mentally disabled adults pulled into the middle of the parking lot. They could hear my bell ringing from where they were, and as they got out of the vehicle, one of the women joyously yelled “Santa!” She ran up to me, gave me a big hug, and said, “I love you.” And one of the worst weather days—cold and rainy—turned out to be the most fun day of all. Around lunch time, a bicycle rider stopped and asked if he could hang out under the awning with me for a while until the rain let up. There were few store customers passing by, so I said, “Sure.” His name was Kris. I asked where he was headed, and he explained that he was riding his bike from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a final adventure before finishing college the following semester. He was photographing people and places on the journey and posting those photos, along with a travel diary, on a Web site for all of his friends and family to follow. I gave him a verbal tour of San Luis Obispo, recommendations for motels if he ended up staying overnight (as it appeared would be the case when it was still raining at dinner time), and told him he must at least go see a world-famous site—the Madonna Inn, one of the most garishly decorated hotels in existence. When my shift ended, we exchanged e-mail addresses, and he cycled off in the direction of the Motel 8 and I headed to AJ’s babysitter’s house. But as I was driving, it dawned on me that Kris was alone in a town where he knew no one, and AJ and I had no plans for the evening. So after picking up AJ, I drove to Kris’s motel and asked him if he would like for me to drive him to the Madonna Inn to see the Christmas decorations in the lobby. We had a great time; I ended up in his cyber travel diary and he ended up in my Christmas memories journal.
The Salvation Army was my personal savior that year. On Christmas Eve, I thanked God that this job had pulled me out of depression and brought hope, love, and laughter back into my life. For the rest of my years, I will never pass a Salvation Army kettle without dropping coins or bills into it—even though no amount of money would ever be enough to equal what I received from my experiences as a bell ringer.
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Theresa M. Danna has a master’s degree in professional writing from University of Southern California. She and AJ moved back to Los Angeles several weeks after finishing her bell-ringing job. At the time of writing, she worked as as a medical editor for Zynx/Cerner.