For whom the kettle bell rings

Evron Barber greets customers coming in and going out of Walmart as he rings his bell for donations for The Salvation Army.

Evron Barber greets customers coming in and going out of Walmart as he rings his bell for donations for The Salvation Army. Photo by Michael Lopez.

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How to help

The Salvation Army in Walla Walla will open the doors to its new Food Bank and Service Center in January. Many volunteers will be needed to help people shop for food during the day. Volunteers to teach adults, teens and children about nutrition, cooking, food safety and grocery budgeting are also sought.

For more information, call 529-9470.

The Salvation Army keeps the pot boiling 120-plus years

By SHEILA HAGAR

of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin

Officials say funding through kettle giving began more than 120 years ago in San Francisco, when Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee was in turmoil over the number of people in the city going hungry. He resolved to provide a Christmas dinner costing not a penny to partakers.

But how?

McFee struggled to find an answer to getting money to feed 1,000 of the poorest in town, thinking back to his sailor days in Liverpool, England. There, a large iron kettle called “Simpson’s Pot” received coins tossed by passers-by to help the poor.

McFee placed a similar pot at the Oakland ferry landing at the foot of Market Street, with a sign reading, “Keep the Pot Boiling.”

He soon had the money to see that the needy people were properly fed at Christmas.

The idea spread from the West Coast to the Boston area. In 1901, kettle contributions in New York City provided a massive sit-down dinner in Madison Square Garden, a custom that continued for many years.

Today in the United States, The Salvation Army assists more than four-and-a-half million people during the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.

McFee’s kettle idea launched a tradition that has spread globally, allowing the nonprofit organization to continue year-round efforts at helping people.

In Walla Walla in 2012, The Salvation Army served 300 families with Christmas food and toys.

WALLA WALLA — If Evron Barber can’t coax money out of a wallet, no one can.

Seated at the main entrance of the College Place Walmart — and he’s mighty grateful to have a stool to support his arthritic knees — the bell ringer for The Salvation Army could well be at the circus. His patter is constant, calling out to all who pass by.

“Hello there, young lady” covers every woman, no matter how many Christmases she’s seen.

“Hi, big guy” is for boys from baby to balding. Every syllable is delivered through an irrepressible smile.

“I’m enjoying it, I sure am,” Barber said. “It’s been a real blessing to me. It sure has. I love the interaction.”

Barber, 85, has voluntarily manned one of the area’s 10 red kettles for a few years now. He and other bell ringers are part of The Salvation Army’s kettle history that began in 1891.

This particular Walmart is busiest for kettle tenders, even when a cold wind lashes the concrete entryway. Traffic is steady, and many departing shoppers are willing to pause and dig something out of a pocket or purse.

“I see Walmart didn’t get all your money,” Barber jokes to donors. “I appreciate that.”

Nonetheless, Walla Walla’s Salvation Army kettles are projected to gather 50 percent less in donations than in the past, said Maj. Ken Dove, who co-heads the nonprofit agency here with his wife, Maj. Debi Dove.

That means bringing in about $20,000, instead of the average of $40,000. And in 2012 — the year the Salvation Army endured an image crisis over its stand on homosexuality — Walla Walla givers dropped $48,000 into kettles.

The Salvation Army’s official stand is that it has not and does not discriminate against anyone.

Last year, however, Australian officer Maj. Andrew Craibe said on a radio talk show there that the Salvation Army and Christian doctrine decreed homosexuals should die.

“It is emphatically noted that Maj. Craibe’s comments do not reflect the views, policies, beliefs, or teachings of The Salvation Army anywhere in the world at any time in history,” the organization states. “We acknowledge that because of our size and scope, occasionally one of our millions of employees and volunteers might say or do something that does not reflect our values ... The Salvation Army believes that all people are equal, regardless of sexual orientation or any other factor, including race, gender and ethnicity.”

The Doves, who arrived to lead the organization’s Walla Walla office in September, believe it was anticipation of a new food bank planned for the area’s most at-risk folks that earned that extra generosity in the kettles last year, Ken Dove said.

Operated under a militarylike structure soon after being founded in 1865, The Salvation Army is a mix of social service work and religion, following core Christian beliefs of salvation, evangelism and caring for the poor.

“Evangelistic and social enterprises are maintained, under the authority of the general, by full-time officers and employees, as well as soldiers who give service in their free time,” the agency’s website states.

At one time, the organization — now operating in 126 countries — was well known for its use of brass bands, tambourines and choirs. Although Walla Walla no longer has a thrift store under The Salvation Army’s banner, a network of such stores continues to be an important source of program funding.

Red kettle proceeds account for about a quarter of the Walla Walla office’s budget.

“And all the money stays in this community,” Dove said.

The financial problem here is reflected in The Salvation Army’s western territory and beyond, officials say. As of Tuesday, the region’s 3,317 kettles had collected $3 million less than in 2012 by this time in the Christmas season.

More than local concern about where Salvation Army doctrine stands on homosexual issues — there is the occasional note referring to the brouhaha dropped in kettles, according to Ken Dove — seasonal giving has been effected by more temporal issues.

“Thanksgiving was late, we lost five days this year. And the weather got cold. Real cold,” he said.

American consumer habits are also creating change. Plastic versus cash and online shopping instead of visiting physical stores means less money in the pot, Dove said.

While the organization is seeking ways to address the changes, the need goes on. Rental and utility assistance, clothing, food and transportation help is continually supplied through the office on West Alder Street either by direct service or partnering with another agency.

“Just about any need someone walks through the door with,” he said. “... This year we’ve helped more people than ever.”

Which is why Barber dons a heavy coat, his trademark hat and a big smile to ring his bell six days a week between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve.

The retired educator is highly aware not everyone has experienced the joy of what he calls his blessed life. He chose to volunteer for The Salvation Army in appreciation for its track record of showing up quickly to emergencies and putting its money where the need is, Barber said, bending to offer a chatty preschooler his bell to ring.

“I’ve watched them over the years and they’re a Christian agency and I appreciate that,” he said.

He tries to do his part to represent the organization with every face he encounters. Distracted shoppers may be grabbing carts, checking receipts and fumbling for keys, but few can resist the bell-ringer’s warm sentiments of “God bless you” and “Come on in, get warm on Walmart.”

Even the box store isn’t exempt — Barber got offered a paid position as a greeter shortly after the kettle season commenced, he said.

“I just try and get a smile from everyone who goes by,” he said. “I’d say I’m successful 96 percent of the time.”

He sees the sad, too.

“The expression in their faces don’t seem to reflect a happy life,” Barber said. “For them I breathe a little prayer.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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