The sound of the tinkling bell drifts across the parking lot, growing louder the closer you get to the King Soopers entrance.
There it is, a red bell so tiny it nestles neatly into Nathan …
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There it is, a red bell so tiny it nestles neatly into Nathan Gray’s hand.
“Happy holidays,” he says, as a customer walks by.
“Merry Christmas, guys. Have a good day.”
A hand drops a dollar bill into the red kettle.
“Thank you,” he says, with a wide smile that seeps into his eyes. “Have a blessed day.”
Gray, 33, a floppy Santa hat on his head, is a bell ringer for the Salvation Army. Just about every day, from the week before Black Friday until Christmas Day, he rings his bell at the front of a King Soopers, enticing contributions from those who cross its threshhold with a grin, a greeting, a compliment, a blessing.
He’s one of about 700 bell ringers in the Salvation Army Intermountain Division, which covers Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and eastern Montana. They’re crucial to the organization’s bottom line — the holiday kettle drive is the year’s largest donation generator.
“This is by far the most effective way to raise money,” spokesperson Tahreem Pasha-Glenn says. “It’s the most recognized fundraiser in the country.”
This holiday season, in an ironic twist, an improving economy has created a shortage of bell ringers, which means a number of locations have no kettles.
The empty spots are worrisome, Pasha-Glenn says, because when it comes to providing services needed by families and individuals struggling simply to survive, every dollar matters.
“Every single dollar that goes into the kettle,” she says, “stays in the community.”
That’s why a good bell ringer is a gift.
The ones who return year after year, seasoned by experience, well, “they’re fantastic,” Pasha-Glenn says. “We see a difference in the amount of donations they bring in. We so appreciate our bell ringers.”
The bell ringers are comprised of mostly volunteers, but also include some — such as Gray — for whom it’s seasonal work.
And for Gray, the job is a joy.
The father of two, who lives in Aurora, stumbled into it three seasons ago when he was looking for work through a temp agency. He had such a good time he’s made it a regular capstone to his working year, which generally consists of jobs as a garbage collector and landscape worker.
This year, he’s also a driver, picking up and dropping off other bell ringers in his area. The pay isn’t much — about $9 an hour, he says — but the work is about much more than the money.
There’s the challenge — to persuade everyone who walks by to give, whether it’s a quarter or $20 or $150.
He makes it a point to greet people twice, once as they walk in the store, once as they walk out. His friendly demeanor, ever-present grin and happy spirit make it difficult not to acknowledge him.
“I didn’t forget you,” says a woman on her way out, pulling money from her purse.
“Thank you so much,” Gray says with a smile. “We appreciate your donation. Have a blessed day.”
His smile widens: “I planted the seed when they came in. I watered it and it grew.”
There are the stories — about one in 30 people, he estimates, has a story to tell about how the Salvation Army made a difference in their lives.
“This older guy,” Gray says, “his wife tells him to put money in the kettle any time he walks by one,” because the Salvation Army helped him when he was young and poor.
“The pregnant lady,” he remembers. “She was pregnant and didn’t have any money and they bought her a car.”
Vietnam vets tell him how the Salvation Army gave them long johns.
On this afternoon, Diana Johnson, 84, stops her shopping cart to look through her purse, then places money into the kettle.
“My husband is a World War II vet,” she says. “He said they were the best at taking care of the GIs.”
Right behind her is Tanya Kukral, 59, who donates every time she passes a kettle.
“My grandfather was on the front lines in World War I,” she says. “He said the Salvation Army was the only one who helped the infantrymen on the front lines. He said, `When you give, you give to the Salvation Army . . . ‘ My grandpa’s been dead for a long time, but his words stuck with me.”
You see, Gray says. So many stories.
And then there’s the steady interaction with people Gray may never see again — it moves him to make sure these chance encounters are positive and sincere.
“It’s really small, but I could be the only person to tell that person Merry Christmas,” he says. “I might be the only one who asks `How are you?’ or says `Have a good day’ . . . It’s a really small thing, but it could go a long way with a certain person.”
And sometimes, the small thing happens to Gray.
“Seems like I see you here every day,” says John Beall, 72, as he walks toward Gray. “Can I get you something to drink at Starbucks?”
Gray smiles. “I’ll take a small Chai.”
When Beall returns, he shakes Gray’s hand. “Thank you,” he says.
Gray’s smile spreads wider.
One day, he hopes, his kettle will be the lucky recipient of an unexpectedly generous donation.
Like one of the gold coins worth thousands of dollars that have sporadically appeared in kettles across the country.
“I’ve been hoping for that this year,” Gray says.
Or like the $500,000 check an anonymous donor dropped in a kettle in Minnesota in late November.
“That’s got to be a world record,” he says.
But, until then, he’ll settle happily for the $150 check someone slipped into the kettle the day before. And, actually, any donation will do just fine.
His face glows: “I just got $20 in there.”
Nathan Gray flips the red bell back and forth. The tinkling drifts across the parking lot.
Everybody who hears it knows what it means.
Time to give the gift of the season: Goodwill to all.
Ann Macari Healey’s award-winning column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4109.
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