The Salvation Army bell ringers and their iconic red kettles have been a familiar sight during the holidays for more than 120 years. Although in the past bell ringers were primarily volunteers, for many behind the kettle today, the temporary job has become a lifesaver.
For first-time bell ringers Lynn and Rusty Smith, it's helping to keep them afloat during tough economic times. They work eight hours a day ringing a Salvation Army bell for minimum wage.
Ringing the holiday bell is still volunteer-driven, but in this ongoing sour economy, hiring the jobless is an extension of the group's social services and provides a small income to out-of-work folks trying to get back on their feet, according to Dawn Wright of the Salvation Army.
Since Thanksgiving, Lynn's window to the world has been in front of a Vons grocery store in Ventura, Calif. "The hard part is knowing how much households are hurting when you see the No. 1 item in grocery carts is bottled water and toilet paper," Lynn says. "And it's hard to see people with children — no shoes on their feet — little toddlers."
She has befriended the homeless and the well-heeled. She has a smile for every passerby, even those who don't return it. But the woman behind the kettle has no judgment. "You have no idea what's going on in their lives," she says.
The same can be said for these bell ringers. The economy has hit the Smiths hard. Rusty, 60, an electronics engineer who once ran his own business, has been out of work for three years. His wife, Lynn, 58, a travel agent for more than 20 years, has had no luck even finding seasonal temp jobs at major chain outlets.
"I didn't think that after being married to an engineer for seven years, late 50s approaching 60, that we would find ourselves deplete of our retirement. The IRA's gone," she says. "We were facing 'How do we pay the electric bill for December? Will we even have a cellphone? We cut the land line, we cut the television, we cut the cable."
That's when she and Rusty applied for jobs as bell ringers. "When this job came up, I didn't know I would have the strength. It wasn't a matter of willingness. I didn't know if I could actually do the job — stand here for eight hours," Rusty says. "Could I go wrangle shopping carts at the local grocery store? I didn't think I could. Now I'm pretty sure I could."
And from his spot in front of Macy's a few miles away, Rusty Smith has gotten to know some of the townspeople a little better. "You might have seen them for years. You might have known them for years and not know what their story was. I think it's given me a broader view than I ever could've gotten any other way," Rusty says.
Rusty and Lynn Smith will be working right up through Christmas Eve. "I have my red lipstick, hot water to keep the voice going, Kleenex to stop the nose from going," Lynn says.
Many of the shoppers reaching for change in their pocket or for a dollar bill from a wallet stop to talk with Smith in her bright red sweatshirt. There was the attorney who was helped by the Salvation Army when she was younger, and a mother whose son is coming home from Iraq.
"And people apologizing that they don't have more to give. And I try and stop and say, 'Every penny helps.' Every penny, every hand, every heart, helping others," she says. "If we carry this on, we'll make it through whatever time brings us."
The Smiths don't know what the day after Christmas will bring for them, but they say they've already received their gift.
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