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Frank Gray

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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Bell ringer James Taylor mans his Salvation Army donation bucket at the Time Corners Walgreens store.

Tough times even for Salvation Army

As I got out of my car at a local shopping center early one afternoon this past weekend, I pondered that I didn’t have a red cent in my pocket.

I was headed out to buy cat litter, one of the most expensive items in the grocery store these days, and planned to pay for it with a check. I wouldn’t have anything to toss in the Salvation Army kettle that is usually at the door.

As I got to the door, however, I was surprised that there was no bell ringer and not even a kettle.

That struck me as unusual. Christmas is only two weeks away and there was no kettle at all in front of this store on a weekend afternoon?

The newspaper has already reported that the Salvation Army struck a deal with a number of national retailers to delay setting up their kettles, meaning the bell ringing season this year will be 11 days shorter than usual.

So is the Salvation Army short of bell ringers as well as time this year?

I spoke to Tim Smith, the social services director with the local Salvation Army.

No, he said, they started the season with about the same number of kettles as last year, and they’ve got about as many bell ringers as they usually have.

Of course the Salvation Army is still looking for volunteers. They want as many volunteers as possible – people who are willing to ring a bell for a couple of hours on an afternoon.

Monetarily, though, this isn’t turning out to be a bang-up season when it comes to those kettles.

The delay in the appearance of the kettles and bell ringers cost the local Salvation Army about $75,000.

Now, Smith said, last time he checked the charity was about 10 percent behind its goal. And as time goes on, things just get worse. “We’re not catching up,” Smith said. “We’re falling further behind.”

It’s just the times, which remain tough. Unemployment is still high. There’s competition from other charities.

“We’ve been trying to become more efficient,” sometimes giving full-time employees additional responsibilities.

For example, the Salvation Army provides utility assistance to individuals, but it uses money it has raised to fund that program. If fundraising falls short, what will happen?

“We do have a youth center with free after-school activities, homework assistance and classes in English as a second language,” Smith said.

The organization wants to keep that going.

Meanwhile, the Salvation Army, which got some government funds to help with rental assistance, lost two-thirds of that money.

“We’ve got hard choices to make,” Smith said.

It’s probably worthwhile tossing a quarter into a kettle if you see one, but it’s hard to toss a quarter into a kettle if one isn’t outside the store you visit.

At least one kettle will be heavily manned, though.

Steve Batzka, 21, a local entrepreneur and graduate of Homestead High School, will compete to set a world record for Salvation Army bell ringing. Starting at 1 p.m. today at the Kroger at the Village of Coventry, he will compete with seven others around the country to beat the record of 60 hours set last year.

You can visit him and his kettle or donate online at

The Salvation Army is still seeking other volunteers, though. If you really want to ring a bell for a couple of hours, you can call Roxanne at 744-2311.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.