Bell ringing for charity begins again


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The steady jingle of bells resounding outside malls and local businesses is as familiar to the holiday season as Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas.” And the sight of a bundled up volunteer ringing a bell beside a red kettle is a keen reminder of the holiday spirit. Just as Ebenezer Scrooge learned in A Christmas Carol, the Iowa City Salvation Army believes that the gift of giving is the best kind of holiday present.

“[Ringing bells is] a heartwarming experience,” said former Iowa City Mayor and member of the Salvation Army’s advisory board Ernie Lehman. “I’m always amazed at those who appear less-than-wealthy who put in $5, $10, $20 bills.”

The season is upon the Salvation Army once again to gather volunteers to don winter coats, leather gloves, and perhaps their Santa Claus caps to ring bells for local charity. On Nov. 22 at 1:30 p.m., the Iowa City corps will host its annual kickoff event at Sycamore Mall in preparation for the Nov. 23 commencement of holiday bells.

“It takes a small army to maintain the program,” Lehman said. “It’s pretty important to get those bells ringing.”

The advisory board member estimated that more than half of the local Salvation Army’s annual income is raised during the holidays, predominantly through ringing bells, as well as solicited mail donations.

The fruits of the community’s charity are channeled toward the organization’s many local programs for the youth, elderly, and homeless. Its mission is to battle hunger, fight addictions, and stimulate community education, care, and compassion.

“For about 10 to 15 years now the local Salvation Army has been effectively dealing with homeless families,” said Iowa City Salvation Army Capt. Terry Smith. “The youth program has grown significantly, beginning with a number of participants in the 10s to a group numbering now more than 100.”

Smith and his family were recipients of the Salvation Army’s goodwill and services while he was growing up. In his youth, he said, he gave back to the organization that kept him and his family on their feet by ringing bells.

“A lot of my focus [now] is on helping folks gain a positive outlook on life,” he said.

Lehman began ringing bells four to five years ago.

“First and foremost, ringing bells is a lot of fun,” he said. The invaluable opportunity to witness the community’s generosity in action never fails to impress him, he said.

“Most of the people who give money remain so anonymous with their donations,” the retired mayor said. “Sometimes, we find that gold coins have been put in the kettles, and nobody knows who did it … There’s a lot of money in those gold coins.”

Richard Noble, an experienced ringer and chairman of the Iowa City Salvation Army’s advisory board, enjoys stories he often hears from recipients of the Salvation Army’s outreach.

“There was one woman from out East who came up to donate and told us about how the Salvation Army had really helped her family out when she was growing up,” he said.

Working with the Salvation Army for seven or eight years now, he said he realizes that benevolence transcends any manmade dividing line.

“The money raised might be for the local area, but you never know where that person you help might end up,” the advisory board’s chairman said.

Favorite memories for these volunteers also include observing family dynamics around the red donation kettle. Lehman enjoys the sight of parents lifting their small children up in order to contribute.

As he sees it, “The Salvation Army and ringing bells go hand in hand with the spirit of Christmas.”

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