The army behind The Army

When the holiday season rolls around, the bell ringers come out in force.

You see them at area retailers and grocery stores, a smile on their faces, a kind word to passersby, their bells never stopping as they stand beside those iconic red kettles collecting donations for the Salvation Army.

For some ringers, manning the silver bells is their chance in this season of giving to give back to the organization that helped them.

“What they gave to me, they gave me a chance to get me focused, to redirect my life, so, therefore, it was an opportunity to give back to somebody else what they gave to me,” said Joseph Allen, 49, from Winnsboro, a bell ringer at Sam’s in Donaldsonville. He recently finished Operation Bootstrap, the Salvation Army’s alcohol and substance abuse treatment program.

It wasn’t his first time in such a program, but this time it worked.

“I’m stronger spiritually, mentally,” he said. “And there’s something about when you become stronger spiritually and wiser, I’ll say I’m even better physically fit now.”

So to give back to the Salvation Army, he decided to become a holiday bell ringer after hearing others at the army’s Airline Highway headquarters talk about how much they love it.

“They have several people coming back year in and year out because they say they just like interacting with the public,” Allen said. “They like the bell ringing. It’s like a satisfaction of giving back, having an opportunity to give back and then you are doing something that is worthy, especially for the little kids.”

It’s people like Allen who Maj. Stephen Long, head of the Salvation Army in Louisiana, calls “the army behind the army.”

“The host of volunteers that really help us, that’s the army behind the Salvation Army,” said Long, a 37-year veteran who began his career as a volunteer holiday bell ringer.

“I think the biggest need we fill is as a reminder to those who have, and a ray of hope to those who have not,” he said. “I think the spirit of Christmas is best defined by that compassion.”

The legend of the Salvation Army’s bells and kettles goes back to San Francisco in the late 1890s.

A Salvation Army captain named Joseph McFee gathered donated fish at the docks and cooked them into a stew in a large urn atop a fire.When the food was ready, he would ring a giant bell to let the poor and homeless know dinner was ready. Hundreds of people ate from the stew, Long said.

Another Salvation Army officer saw what McFee was doing and the number of people he helped. He tweaked the idea, making the kettle smaller and asking, instead, for money.

The current holiday program was born.

According to the Salvation Army’s website, red kettle donations brought in more than $148 million in 2012. Long said about $1 million was raised in Louisiana in 2012. And now the organization, which was founded in 1865, is letting its bell ringers go hi-tech.

The Salvation Army offers online red kettles in which people can ask for donations via email and social media.

Long said he thinks in the coming years, the online red kettles will continue to grow and bring in more donations, “but something has to be said about the traditional outside, red kettle bell ringer, and we never want to lose that hallmark.”

Lamont Major, 41, of Baton Rouge, also wants to keep the tradition of outside bell ringers going.

The affable Major stood outside the Sam’s Club at Cortana Mall about recently in intermittent rain, greeting every single person who walked passed, even throwing out greetings in Spanish tosome.

“I just wanted to try and give back, not only to help others, but give back to this program because they have done a lot for me,” Major said.

Like Allen, he is a graduate of Operation Bootstrap volunteering so that he can give back to the army.

“I basically fell into addiction and when I fell into addiction, that’s when I made a trip to the Salvation Army,” Major said.

He also cooked and served meals during hurricanes Gustav and Isaac.

Major, in his second season of bell ringing, said he hopes to continue as long as he can because hearing stories about the army providing for those at their lowest warms his heart.

“Every now and then, you get to walk across and meet some people and it makes you feel good,” he said. “Sometimes they come to tears, and you feel it. It overwhelms you with the spirit. When your back gets to hurting or your feet get to aching a little more, that feeling gives you the drive to go on a little more. I’m blessed to be able to do this.”