Hoping to inspire change

Salvation Army looking for more West Michigan bell ringers

BIG RAPIDS — Felix Hernandez rings his bell outside of Walmart and smiles as hurried shoppers walk by his red Salvation Army bucket. Some stop and drop in a few coins or a crumpled dollar bill. He thanks them, wishes them a Merry Christmas or a good afternoon.

He knows the pocket change can make a real change in someone’s life, like it did in his.

“I’ve been in the same situation as the people who we’re helping,” the Big Rapids resident said. “I used to live on the streets.”

Ferris State University student volunteers Taylor Johnson, 18, and Connor Hart, 19, ring bells outside Walmart on Tuesday night. Each volunteered for a two-hours shift, which they worked back to back to keep each other company. (Pioneer photos/Whitney Gronski-Buffa)

Hernandez said he turned to the Salvation Army when his life was at it roughest. He ended up joining the Salvation Army church, located at 325 Linden St., and eventually began taking bell-ringing shifts during the holiday season, making $15 per shift. Now, he’s in his 13th year ringing bells for the Salvation Army and picking up as many shifts as he can.

“I run into a lot of people I know. I love talking to people, greeting them,” Hernandez said. “It’s warming to my heart, and I think the good Lord looks upon me for doing it. (I see) the generosity of people’s hearts.”

Although Hernandez’s position is paid, the Salvation Army needs about 200 to 300 unpaid volunteers to ring bells for individual two-hour shifts this year in Mecosta, Osceola and Newaygo counties.

“If you volunteer for a shift, you can look at it as saving us $15 in paid staffing,” said Chris Vallette, development director for the Salvation Army – Big Rapids. “We find that some people don’t have the financial well-being to be able to give financially to a kettle, so why not volunteer your time and essentially make a $15 contribution with your time?”

All kettle contributions made in this area go toward furthering the Salvation Army’s mission in Mecosta, Osceola, Newaygo and Lake counties. Eighty-three percent of the donations go back into the community in which they were collected. About 17 percent is kept to cover overhead, Vallette said.

The Salvation Army helps provide needy people with emergency and temporary housing, utility assistance and food vouchers. Utility assistance is currently the greatest need in Michigan, Vallette said, because of recent reductions in state and federal utility benefits.

This year, the fundraising goal for Salvation Army – Big Rapids is $53,000. Last year, the $50,000 goal was exceeded by more than $8,000.

“They were really generous last year, so we’re hoping they can be again this year,” Vallette said.

There are no qualifications for bell ringers, although high school students must work their shift with a buddy, whether it’s a friend, a parent or a guardian, Vallette said. All shifts take place from noon to 8 p.m., beginning at noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.

“We tell people as long as you can stand, smile and ring a bell, you can do this,” Vallette said. “They are the face of the Salvation Army, so we just want them to go into it with a good attitude, no matter the weather, and greet people and be warm and inviting.”

The job itself isn’t always warm and inviting, especially when the sun goes down. Ferris State University student volunteers Taylor Johnson, 18, and Connor Hart, 19, stood outside Walmart for four hours on Tuesday night.

This is Hart’s second year volunteering as a bell ringer.

“It was fun the first year I did it, so I thought I’d do it again,” Hart said. “But my advice would be to dress warm.”

They each volunteered for a two-hour shift, but worked them back to back to keep each other company.

“If we stood out here by ourselves, it might get kind of boring,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to see a lot of people actually donating. They’ll either come by when they’re going in or they’ll get us when they come back.”

WHERE TO FIND THEM

This year, Salvation Army bell ringers are stationed throughout Mecosta, Osceola and Newaygo counties.

  • Walmart, Kmart and Walgreens in Big Rapids
  • Vick’s Market Foodland in Reed City
  • Walmart in Fremont
  • Plums Value-Rightin Newaygo
  • Fosters in Evart

There are currently no kettles in Lake County. Contributions also can be made securely online at SABigRapids.com.

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Posted by Whitney Gronski-Buffa

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