Bells Will Be Ringing
Meet some angels behind the Salvation Army bells.
By Al Parker | Dec. 15, 2018
From its humble beginnings in 1891 in San Francisco, the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign has grown into one of the most recognizable charitable efforts in the nation. Last year it raised $144.5 million that went to support an array of community programs.
And it wouldn’t be possible without the 25,000 bell ringers who are dedicated to raising funds that stay in their community.
Northern Express talked to members of this bundled-up bucket brigade who volunteer their time — sometimes an hour, sometimes several hours — to lend a helping hand to their northern Michigan neighbors.
‘I get a lot of repeat customers’
Sixty years ago, a five-year-old shared a Salvation Army bell ringing assignment with his Grandpa, who taught the lad how to keep his feet a bit warmer by stuffing corrugated cardboard inside his boots.
That memory never faded for the boy, Tom Mountz (pictured), now marking his 25th holiday season as a bell ringer at his regular duty post outside Horizon Books in Traverse City. He’s there most every Thursday from 4pm to 6pm and enjoys seeing the same friendly faces each year.
“I get a lot of repeat customers,” said Mountz, who retired in April after a career with the National Park Service. “It’s something I look forward to every year and it’s really a love-fest at times. I can count on seeing the same folks every year.”
Mountz makes the weekly drive to Traverse City from his home about five miles south of Empire. Over the years he’s seen quite a few generous gifts, but one incident stands out when Mountz actually discouraged a visitor from donating.
“I saw this guy come out of the U&I [Lounge], and he was staggering,” said Mountz. “He came down to Horizon, opened his wallet and took out $20 and put it in the bucket. Then he put in another $20, then another. Finally I realized he was going to put his whole paycheck into the bucket, and I just had to cut him off. I was worried about the poor guy’s family.”
Many donors share with Mountz that they once needed help from the Salvation Army and now they are glad to share their good fortune with those who need some support.
"People, especially young people, are pretty generous,” he said. “Even if they don’t have a lot, they’re willing to share.”
‘The cold gets a little nasty at times’
Once the Salvation Army bell ringing campaign begins, it’s pretty easy to find Tim Kubek.
Six days a week, from 10am to 6pm, Kubek can be located at his sometimes-chilly duty post outside the Oleson’s market in Petoskey. No matter the weather, the 65-year-old Alanson man is there greeting shoppers and sharing good cheer.
“The cold gets a little nasty at times,” he said with a laugh. “But that’s OK — I just keep warm by talking with people and keep moving around.”
Kubek, a cousin of former New York Yankees shortstop and baseball broadcaster Tony Kubek, has been a bell ringer for five years. “I volunteered one year and it just grew on me,” he said.
So has Kubek ever received anything unusual in his bucket?
“No, a $100 bill here or there, but nothing too amazing,” he said. “Of course, Saturday and Sunday are our busy days. And we always have our regulars who stop by to say hello and make a donation. It’s always great to see them.”
Kubek is one of the Salvation Army volunteers who serve Antrim, Emmet, and Charlevoix counties. Their goal is to raise $100,000 this holiday season, according to Development Director Amy Evans. “The need is quite steep this year,” she said. “The money stays local, it goes right back into the community.
“It’s very satisfying.”
For a town the size of Elk Rapids, savvy ringers know that the prime location is the local grocery.
“The Village Market is a must-do on weekends,” explained Tom Stephenson, who’s in his fourth winter as a bell ringer. “We’re always at the Village Market. Rick Young, the owner, is a big supporter.”
Stephenson is not only a volunteer, but he helps organize other Rotary Club members who serve as ringers. And there are more than a dozen Elk Rapids High School students, members of the Rotary’s Interact Club, who volunteer as ringers. In fact, over the Thanksgiving weekend the teens raised more than $800 for the Salvation Army. “They did a great job,” said Stephenson.
Sometimes the wintry winds come howling off of Lake Michigan, making for some frigid ringing during the two-hour shifts. So does Stephenson have any tips on how to battle the cold?
“I’m a deer hunter, so I have all the gear I need,” he said. “But it starts with keeping your feet warm with good boots. We work in two-person teams, so when it’s really bitter cold, one can take a break, get a cup of coffee or some hot soup.”
Another type of warmth comes from the generosity of the Elk Rapids donors, some of whom have been known to tuck a $100 bill in the kettle.
“It’s very satisfying,” said Stephenson. “The Salvation Army does a great job here. A lot of people tell us they’re grateful for what we’re doing. Elk Rapids is a very giving community.”
‘A good way to help people’
Gaylord’s Don Storing is a self-described “semi-pro bell ringer.”
He’s been a volunteer in the bell and bucket brigade for about 15 years, after his wife Mardee got him involved in the Salvation Army effort. She had been a bell ringer and eventually he took up the activity too.
“It’s a good way to help people in the community,” said the 68-year-old who graduated from Gaylord High and Michigan State University before doing a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force. He worked in the communications industry in the Detroit area, eventually launching his own business, which he sold in the late 1990s. He and Mardee moved back to Gaylord in 1997.
He’s been stationed outside the Wal-Mart, Walgreens and other locations, but his favorite bell ringing site is at the Family Fare Market on Gaylord’s Main Street. It’s a former Glen’s Market and Storing worked there as a teen, so there’s a sentimental attachment. And there’s another nice feature.
“I prefer to ring at Family Fare because you can stand inside,” said Storing, who suffers from Renaud’s Disease, a vascular condition that makes his hands and extremities very sensitive to cold weather.
It’s not an ideal condition for a bell ringer, but Storing shrugs it off and dresses in layers. “Even at Family Fare, that wind can come blasting in,” he said. “But I wear long sleeve t-shirt, a sweatshirt and a leather coat.”
So why would someone sensitive to low temperatures leave his warm home to spend hours out in the cold?
“Mardee and I have been so fortunate in our lives,” he explained. “When you look at the big picture, it’s our way of giving back. I feel that those of us who have been lucky, kind of owe it to the community.”
Storing wants donors to know that gifts of any size are welcome in his bucket.
“They shouldn’t feel that they have to give $5, $10 or $20,” he said. “For a $1 that bell ringer is just as grateful, even if they just put change in there.”
Ringers, he said, go through slumps too and it’s a little depressing.
“I rang four times last year. At one of them for an hour not a single person stopped,” he said. “There are times like that. But then the next five people might come up and put $5 in. And it gets to you.”
What happens to the kettle and the cash?
The kettle is securely locked onto the stand, and only Salvation Army staff may remove it. When a new ringer arrives, they are given the bell. If no one comes to replace a ringer or collect the equipment at the end of the day, ringers simply place the bell next to the kettle, and leave. Volunteers are not responsible for standing guard over the kettle once their shift is finished.
New this year, you can ask Amazon Alexa to donate by saying, “Alexa donate to the Salvation Army” and then specifying the amount. You can also donate any amount by texting KETTLES to 91999.