They’re not jingle bells or silver bells, but the ding-a-ling chime from Salvation Army bell ringers heralds the coming of Christmas just as effectively.
Whatever the weather, paid people and volunteers set up at the entrance of retail stores across the country to collect donations for people in need as part of the Red Kettle Campaign every December.
However, things have changed this year on the Central Coast, including the increased number of bell-ringer applicants and the methods of propping up the sagging level of donations.
“Good morning. Merry Christmas!” bell ringer Linda Beatty called out to passing shoppers at the Albertsons grocery store on McCoy Lane in Santa Maria Wednesday.
“May God bless you. Have a nice Christmas,” said Maurita Jaurequi with a smile to people heading into Spencer’s Fresh Market on Lakeview Road in Orcutt Saturday.
The greetings and good will are the same as previous holidays, but Salvation Army Capt. Bob Louangamath said the number of people who applied for paid bell-ringing positions tripled this year.
“Normally I hire ten people a year, but with the way the economy’s going — people have lost their jobs and have a family to feed — the only thing left for me to help was to hire 40 people this year,” Louangamath said.
On average, the Santa Maria Salvation Army receives about 20 applications each holiday season, but this year 60 people applied for the very temporary minimum-wage positions, Louangamath said.
Lompoc bell ringers are not paid, according to Cozetta Blow, who works for the Lompoc Police Department and serves as the chair of the local Red Kettle program.
Local service clubs, such as the American Legion and the Lions Club, and high school clubs looking for community service opportunities, usually make up the volunteer bell-ringer ranks in Lompoc.
“But we understand that everyone’s stretched thin, so we’re looking for more volunteers,” Blow said.
In past years, Santa Maria resident Tina Bright, 40, has volunteered with several different Salvation Army programs.
However, in October she was laid off from her bus driver position with Student Transportation of America.
“I just called Captain Bob and said, ‘I really need some help,’” Bright said. “It was a blessing to get the bell-ringer job with the Salvation Army.”
Bright said the salary will help her family get through the holidays, and she’s hoping to get a permanent job while she’s out ringing in the community.
“I think everyone should volunteer for this at least once in their life. It changes you, gives you humility and shows you a different spectrum of what life is,” she said.
Other bell ringers, such as Beatty at Albertsons and Jaurequi at Spencer’s, applied for the positions as a way to show their appreciation for the Salvation Army.
“When I needed the help, when my kids were little, they were there for me, no questions asked,” said Jaurequi, a 62-year-old Santa Marian who has volunteered in the Red Kettle Campaign for the past three years.
“I’m disabled,” she explained. “So instead of staying home and watching TV, I’m out here having fun.”
Beatty, 53, has been a part-time and full-time bell ringer since 1997.
“I like to keep busy and be outside, and it’s a great cause,” she said. “It was my father’s favorite charity, and doing this brings him back to me at this time of year.”
When asked, both women said the constant chime of the hand-held bell doesn’t bother them at all.
While a few people walked past the women without acknowledging their greetings, most of the grocery shoppers smiled back, returned the salutation and dropped some change into the kettle.
Chad Cretcher, a manager at Spencer’s market said, “People love it. The bell ringing is a sign of Christmas spirit. For the most part the bell blends in with all the other sounds, the voices and cash registers, but when it breaks out, it’s a sign of cheery holidays.”
Santa Maria resident Michelle Adams, who dropped a donation into the red kettle outside of Albertsons on McCoy Lane, agreed with Cretcher.
“Seeing the bell ringers reminds me of how blessed I am,” she said.
Santa Maria resident Richard Dydell, 78, is one of many people who are reminded of past help from the Salvation Army upon seeing the red kettle.
“At the turn of the century, my father lived in the poorest neighborhood in Colorado,” Dydell said, more than willing to share his story.
“My grandfather had lost the use of his arm and lost his job as a result. There was no welfare at the time and he couldn’t get another job,” he said.
“The Salvation Army came to the rescue and saved them from starving.”
Years later, Dydell’s father had done well for himself as a chief engineer of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company, and on his death left $100,000 to the Salvation Army.
“I still have the papers to prove it,” Dydell said proudly.
The tough economy has the Salvation Army thinking creatively to drum up donations.
In addition to bell ringers and red kettles at shops around town, the Santa Maria chapter recently got a credit card machine.
Shoppers who never have cash now have no excuse not to donate. In East Coast towns, where the new credit program began, donations increased 20 percent, Louangamath said.
That would be a welcome increase locally, where donations are lagging.
In Santa Maria, all those pennies, nickels and dimes are adding up to about $1,000 less per day than in previous years, and Lompoc saw donations drop from $12,000 in 2007 to $10,000 in 2008.
All the funds collected in the Red Kettle Campaign are used locally to support Salvation Army programs and people in need.
In 2006, Santa Maria donations added up to $60,000. Residents gave even more in 2007 and 2008, $70,000 and $75,000 respectively, according to Louangamath.
“With the way the economy was in 2008, people were even more generous and gave more to help, but this year, more people are coming to the Salvation Army for help,” Louangamath said, adding that he anticipated a decrease in overall donations this season.
For those donors who want to do more than drop some change into the red buckets, the Salvation Army has come up with “cyber kettles.”
People can go online to sal-vationarmy-socal.org and start their own red kettle, where co-workers, friends and family members can donate to the charitable organization.