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Salvation Army bell ringers chime in on service

Kettle Drive counts on 16,000 county volunteers

Dec. 5, 2012

Tim Seeger had been ringing the bell for six hours - and still had three to go.

His first shift began around 9 a.m. at the Salvation Army kettle inside the vestibule at the Pick n' Save in Pewaukee. And - being the day before Thanksgiving - "there was good foot traffic," Seeger said, with about every fifth person stopping to stuff bills or coins in the slot.

Then, around noon, he traveled to his current spot at the Pick n' Save at Pabst Farms in Oconomowoc to ring there. And out of the 50 Salvation Army kettle locations in Waukesha County, Seeger said, this was one of the hottest for donations.

"Here we have, what I call, 'cross town traffic,' " said Seeger, a Waukesha resident, pointing to the people on his left entering the store, and those on his right exiting. "You get two chances at them."

This was Seeger's third year as a bell ringer and felt he had some good tips for the approximately 16,000 bell ringers who will volunteer from early November through Christmas Eve in Waukesha County alone. "You have to make eye contact with people - and smile," he said. "Some type of personal greeting always helps too. That way you create a bond."

The right positioning makes a difference also, Seeger said. For instance, he said, being more in front of people coming in - meeting them square on - got more people digging out change then focusing on people leaving. "This," he said, indicating where he stood, "is the sweet spot."

But, now three hours later, he noted that donations have slowed a bit, with about every 10th to 15th person stopping. Fewer people were even bothering to give those apologetic sorry-no-money-pocket pats while passing. Seeger figured people were in the final hours of holiday preparation, and were preoccupied. Still, on a day like this, he said, when "there are multiple reasons to give," he wasn't yet going home. After this shift, Seeger was heading just down the road to the Kmart to ring until 6 o'clock.

Wasn't he getting tired? "Not at all," Seeger says.

Just then, shortly past 3 p.m., Marcy Stutzman, the Salvation Army volunteer coordinator for Waukesha County, came through the sliding doors. She had been going around all day, checking in on the volunteers, switching out the kettles and so on. She looked exhilarated. "We've had a couple kettles so full that they had to be changed," she said.

This was hopeful news. The 2012 Red Kettle Campaign has a goal of $680,000 - which is $20,000 more than the previous year's goal. "With all the money collected staying in Waukesha County," Stutzman said. More specifically, she noted, 88 cents out of every dollar goes directly toward programs helping those in need - whether homeless shelters, community meal programs, the food pantry, and utility assistance, to name a few. The remainder, she said, goes toward keeping the organization running.

"The Salvation Army uses the most of its dollars for those most in need," she said.

Even in this current world of debit cards - where people rarely seem to have cash on hand - kettle donations still increase every year. "It's my dollar, your dollar, someone's quarter, someone's pennies - it all adds up," she said. "Every bit counts."

And not only money is left in the kettles, Stutzman noted. "We've gotten gold coins a few times," she said. "And once we even got an envelope with a pair of diamond earrings." But, Stutzman said, most often people will leave kind notes telling how the Salvation Army had helped them in their lives. "People will also leave notes thanking the volunteers," she said.

The Salvation Army, Stutzman said, has been serving Waukesha County for more than 100 years, and it has never been easier to sign up to be a bell ringer. People can register at www.usc.salvationarmy.org/waukesha. "You just choose an available shift and show up," she said. "The bell and red apron will be waiting." People can also call the volunteer hotline number at (262) 547-7367.

"It's a great way for a family to volunteer together," said Stutzman, who annually rings outside the Piggly Wiggly in Hartland with her daughter. "Children bell ringing always helps get donations. People can't pass up a cute little kid - or a dog."

Sandy Patterson, a Dousman resident and volunteer bell ringer for the past 18 years, knows this well. It was now two days later - the afternoon of Black Friday - and Patterson was found at her regular spot outside the Kmart in Oconomowoc, bundled up in her wheel chair, bell in hand. "They're kettle bait," she says, motioning to her two adorable Samoyed dogs - 9-year-old Cricket and 4-month-old Allie - at her feet.

Patterson continues to take at least two bell-ringing shifts a week during the holiday season. "And," she said, "I always have a dog with me." The reason is clear. It is nearly impossible not to stop and bury your hands in her dogs' white fluffy fur. And Patterson will let you.

"A lot of people think they have to donate to pet the dogs," she said. Though, of course, she added, it isn't necessary. "But," Patterson said, "I don't tell them that."

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