Ohio Life

My Ohio: Ringing True

The Salvation Army’s red donation kettles offer a look into the nature of generosity and hope.

After volunteering for more than three decades, you learn little tricks for being a successful Salvation Army bell ringer.

The most important is to stand on a small but thick braided throw rug, especially when your red kettle is stationed on a concrete sidewalk outside a store. In the most frigid weather, your feet will still go numb but at least you won’t have shocks of pain traveling up your legs.

I’ve also found it helpful to bring my own bell. It’s tough to hang on to it while wearing bulky mittens, so I wrap layers and layers of duct tape around the bell’s handle and hold on tight, sometimes for eight-hour shifts of ringing.

Finally, I dress the part by wearing a long navy blue wool cape with a red lining and hood. I know, I should have a vintage bonnet to complete my version of the organization’s traditional garb, but I’m not an official member and I don’t want to mislead anyone. But people react to my attire and respond with donations, and that’s what counts.

I’ve always been overwhelmed with the kindness of Ohioans who stuff change and dollar bills into the Salvation Army kettle each holiday season.

I’ve also learned over the years that generosity often presents itself in unexpected ways. Once, an elderly woman, who struggled to push a shopping cart, pulled out her change purse and very slowly retrieved a neatly folded bill to feed the kettle. Another time, a group of tough-looking teens stopped to donate, even chiding one of their own when he didn’t contribute.

A single mother with a baby in a shopping cart seat and a toddler hanging onto the side once stopped to tell me that the Salvation Army helped her provide a Christmas for her children. Another woman mentioned that the organization helped her sister when a flood destroyed her home, and a man once recounted to me how the charity helped his neighbors when fire ravaged their apartment.

All of these people seemed as though they were compelled to share their stories, providing me with a look into the quiet but valuable ways that the nearly 150-year-old organization goes about its business.

One of my most memorable exchanges happened on a particularly windy and cold day when a man in his early 20s came up to me. “I could use some help,” he said. “But I don’t think the Salvation Army could do much right now.”

He explained that he was a truck driver from Michigan and his rig had just broken down. It was parked nearby, but the man’s boss told him he wouldn’t be able to get anyone out to help until evening.

“I wanted to get home to see my wife today,” I remember him telling me. “We’ve only been married a few weeks, and I’ve had to leave her a lot to go on the road with the truck. She’s upset I’m still in Ohio.”

We talked some more, and he told me about his sad life as a boy with an aloof and sometimes abusive family. I thought he’d eventually get bored and walk around the shopping center, but he stayed by my side for hours, greeting shoppers and thanking them whenever coins clattered into the kettle.

“I don’t really know anyone in Ohio,” he told me at one point. “But you all seem like nice people.”  

I wasn’t sure who was getting the most out of this encounter — the young man because he was lonely or me because he kept my spirits up in the cold. I just chalked it up as another way the Salvation Army works in its unobtrusive ways.

Later that evening, the young man spotted a repair truck across the parking lot that had been sent to rescue him and his semi. He bounded toward the truck, and I thought that was the last I would see of him. I was wrong.

An hour later, after his truck was fixed, he came back and threw a handful of coins and some bills into the kettle. “Thank you, ma’am,” the young man said, “for everything.”

It wasn’t me that he was thanking. It was the Salvation Army. I just wear the cape.

Jill Sell is a contributing editor based in Sagamore Hills.