Shawn Vestal: Bell ringers in short supply as the holiday approaches

<p><p>The late-morning temperature had barely crept above freezing, but Mikel Gates was keeping things warm at his red kettle outside Fred Meyer.</p></p><p><p>“Good morning!” he greeted a customer coming in, and then “Good morning!” to one coming out. “You have a great day now!”</p></p><p><p>Gates, 62, is a veteran bell-ringer at the Salvation Army’s red kettles. He was working the store’s south door Wednesday, and his sister, Mechelle Gates-Engle, was at the north entrance. They each have been working the kettles for eight years, and they know the keys to a successful day: a friendly demeanor and four layers of long underwear.</p></p><p><p>“I’ve got a base pair, and then a poly pair, and then a cotton pair, and then a wool pair,” Gates said, laughing.</p></p><p><!–[photoset id=11643]–></p><p><p>Every now and then, someone like Janna Harvey pushed a folded bill or dropped a few clinking coins into his kettle.</p></p><p><p>Harvey, a 79-year-old Spokane woman, always plans to have a little something for the kettles.</p></p><p><p>“I make a point at every store I go in to at least have something to give,” Harvey said.</p></p><p><p>There is less cash in kettles this year than in years past, though – or fewer kettles filling up with cash, to be more precise. Like many organizations, the Salvation Army is struggling to fill paid and volunteer positions as bell-ringers, and so it is falling behind its fund-raising goals for the holiday season.</p></p><p><p>In a typical year, the organization puts out 65 to 68 red kettles at the entrances of stores around the region; this year it’s been in the 40s, and that’s affecting the fund-raising significantly. The campaign is just over halfway to its goal of $430,000.</p></p><p><p>“We just haven’t been able to get all these sites manned,” said Major Ken Perine. “We’re short volunteers and paid staff.”</p></p><p><p>The organization is also about 200 toys behind goal on its annual toy drive. In particular, toys for older kids are needed, Perine said.</p></p><p><p>“Everybody buys toys for the little ones,” he said. “We need toys for the teenage crowd.”</p></p><p><p>Perine and his organization are hoping that people will step up and help however they can in the remaining days before the holiday.</p></p><p><p>The familiar red kettles have been around a long time. This is the 130th year of the program, which originated in San Francisco in 1891 by a Salvation Army captain who wanted to provide a free Christmas dinner to the poor. The idea spread quickly to other cities, and eventually to other countries – all of which help fund the organization’s assistance programs, which help more than 4.5 million people a year during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.</p></p><p><p>Local programs funded by the Salvation Army include foster care for abused and neglected children, a community youth center, the Camp Gifford summer camp, a food bank, and shelter services for the homeless, including the new Way Out bridge shelter.</p></p><p><p>This year’s drive includes ways to make the kettle ring virtually, by using a credit card with its TipTap program. About 18 of the kettles this year have that option.</p></p><p><p>Most of those giving at Fred Meyer were still using bills and coins on Thursday.</p></p><p><p>At her station by the scented pine cones and propane tanks, Gates-Engles cheerfully greeted every single customer.</p></p><p><p>“Merry Christmas!” she said. “Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas! Thank you, sir!”</p></p><p><p>She was often up and on her feet, staying moving to stay warm. She and her brother were not yet halfway into an eight-hour day.</p></p><p><p>“You gotta work hard to stay cheerful,” she said cheerfully.</p></p><p><p>Like her brother, she was buried in thick warm layers – with a big hooded coat over the top of it all, fleece boots and a face mask.</p></p><p><p>“I tell my friends I’m really a size 2,” she said with a laugh.</p></p>