Sleigh bells ring for the Salvation Army

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The sleigh bells jingle merrily as I wrap my hand around them. I shake them rhythmically and watch people’s heads turn to make sure it’s not a reindeer making that noise. But most people have that distracted expression on their faces, suggesting people on a mission, mentally ticking off everything on the grocery list. I recognize that expression. Every year I walk by – consumed by my Christmas to-do list – and occasionally drop some coins into the Salvation Army kettle.

This year, for a couple of hours, I became one of those bell-ringing volunteers who pop up outside every grocery store as a sure sign Christmas is coming. It started with a call to the local Salvation Army Kettle Coordinator, Don Bazinet, after I heard he needed more help. He assigns me a two-hour shift. Dress warmly, he says. So even though the temperature isn’t at Arctic levels yet, I layer on extra fleece and dig out gloves and the bright Santa hat.

My donation station with its bright red sign and kettle, is at the Superstore, set up in between the entry and exit doors. I’m not afraid of selling – I sold Rotary Club raffle tickets for my father as a teenager. Since then I’ve helped with lots of silent auctions and some major fundraising efforts for non-profit groups. But that’s not the strategy here. I resist the urge to start an infomercial patter or to boldly leap in front of people. Either they donate or they don’t.

This is the 126th Christmas Kettle Campaign for the Salvation Army, which started in Canada in 1882. With emergency shelters and over 200 thrift stores, the “Sally Ann” supports the most needy with a love-thy-neighbour mission and an unvarnished image, less slick than some of the cancer of the month charities. Its military structure means it can respond quickly to handle disasters like the Fort McMurray wildfires.

So I shake the sleigh bells (can you get repetitive strain injuries from doing this?), look people in the eye and make some sort of greeting. Several times people emerged from the store and reached into their pockets as they walked towards me. Oh boy, I think. Then they pull out cellphones. But then the donation flood starts: fistfuls of pocket change, many $5 bills pulled from trim wallets, and a crisp $20. I am effusive in my praise to all and hand out mini-candy canes.

At first I overthink this job, watching for demographic trends. But money comes from old, young, men and women. And several parents made the donation a teaching moment and gave their children some coins to drop in the kettle, one parent even lifting his two boys up so they could reach the slot. Maybe I could do a quick philanthropy survey. I kibosh that idea after I ask one man why he was donating. “Because of your smiling face,” he says. He’s joking of course, but maybe there’s something to that. A couple of women do say thanks for doing this. What they all mean is that they are moved to respond as one human to another.

At the end of the shift, I am becoming a seasonal fixture, like a department store Santa. I make small talk with the security guard and the employee collecting shopping carts. Then one of the earlier donors comes out of the store with his purchases and pauses to chat. He’s retired and has just moved here. He admits that he carries $5 bills so he can make several donations.

Bazinet comes back to retrieve the kettle and pack up. He admits he’s not naturally sentimental. “I’m a Scrooge, a grumpy old person,” he says about his general attitude. “But when I rang the bell for the first time, I came home and my wife said ‘There’s something different about you.’” Now he runs the campaign, the big fundraiser of the year, and the Cowichan Valley was one of only two Island communities to reach its goal – $80,000. This year he hopes to increase the funds, and said that already people have been generous.

For Bazinet, who is still recovering from a motorcycle accident, it’s a logistical challenge finding volunteers to cover the 35 shifts daily for 22 days. He relies on volunteers like the man in his 80s who signs up for 16 shifts. And he always carries his master schedule in case someone like me happens along to donate some time.

It’s only Dec.2, and the Christmas frenzy is just beginning. Volunteering like this has helped remind me of the true Christmas spirit, of making sure everyone has enough.

To volunteer, call Don Bazinet at 250-732-8988 or email sarmykc@gmail.com

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