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Volunteers Key to Red Kettle Tradition

Youth, adults from Hartland help staff three locations to raise money for the Salvation Army.

On Monday morning, while some lucky people stayed warm in their beds and kids of all ages cheered for the always anticipated snow day, Karen McGraw, a first-year volunteer bell ringer for the Salvation Army, stood at her post outside the faithfully ringing her bell.

With ice covering the roads, snow piled up on every corner and wind whipping through the air, the winter season had finally stuck, but for volunteers like McGraw, their mission is more important than blizzard-like conditions.

"It's not that bad out here," she said. "I enjoy it, it keeps my heart warm. Everyone says thank you for doing this to me, but it's an honor really. It's a pleasure."

Huddled by the building pillars that blocked the harsh wind, McGraw said that the trick to staying warm was finding a location that had a little bit of shelter and to dress properly in lots of layers. The right attitude and willingness to help are also important tools to bring with you, according to other bell ringers.

"I like just smiling at people to know that they've given and you've given and you have this moment of understanding," said Kathleen Tyer, a French and English teacher.

Tyer, who is part of the Hartland Care Campaign for the , was just one of approximately 50 teachers who signed up for half hour shifts around town to help support the charity and ring the bells.

Hartland currently has three locations where the signature red kettles and the opportunity to give can be found. The Hartland Kroger, 10059 E. Highland Road (M-59), , 10400 Highland Road, and , 10081 Highland Road, are all businesses that support the mission of the Salvation Army, which began in 1891 when Capt. Joseph McGee saw a need to help, especially during the holidays, and a tradition was born. Today, the red kettles and the bell ringers who man them are as much a part of the Christmas scenery as Santa and his elves.

"Earlier there was a lady who said she made a New Year's Resolution not to pass one bucket up," said volunteer bell ringer Aaron Suntken from Howell who helped ring bells in front of Kroger.

And every spare coin or dollar, no matter how small, can help, according to Suntken, who volunteers his time all year round with several different Salvation Army programs.

"There are more needy families than ever this year and the economy is so bad," he said. "And I know that some people don't have the money to donate, but any little bit helps and it will add up and we can help out more needy families."

In the 2009 fiscal year, the Livingston County Salvation Army helped approximately 3,000 people with several different programs that included seasonal homeless shelters and providing things like clothing and prescriptions. During the upcoming winter season the biggest need will be for help in paying utility bills and rent.

"This is the biggest fundraiser of the year and it affects all of our services," said Livingston County Salvation Army Capt. Jennifer Ortman. "So if we don't make our kettle bell quota, we'll have to make some hard decisions about services as far as how many people we can help. … It's not a step we like, but we have to start budgeting."

As of Dec. 6, donations to the Livingston County Salvation Army are down by $6,500 from last year. Salvation Army officials — who say this is their busiest time of year — have not returned Hartland Patch messages and e-mails this week seeking further updates on donations.

The kettle bell fundraiser, going on now, is made up of two different types of bell ringers, paid and volunteer, both of which are utilized at Hartland locations. The paid bell ringers are motivated individuals who are unemployed and looking for work. The Salvation Army gives those people an opportunity to help support the organization by ringing bells and taking shifts at popular kettle locations.

The second type of bell ringer is the volunteer, who could potentially be the difference in helping the Salvation Army meet its donation goals this season. Since so many people recognize the sound of the bell ringing and the symbol of the red bucket, having enough volunteers willing to give the hours needed to be present during shopping hours is just as important as the act of giving itself, officials say.

"We love the volunteers," Jennifer Ortman said. "The volunteer's do it 'cause they want to and 'cause its fun. They make it fun. They'll sing, they have dogs. The Girl Scouts love it cause they get to bounce around and have fun and talk to people."

A typical shift for a bell ringer can be anywhere from two to four hours. Many groups, however, tend to split up the shifts to cover more time and allow more people the chance to volunteer.

Tyer, the Hartland teacher, said she hopes her actions would motivate some of her students to volunteer as well.

"A lot of times we miss the Christmas spirit, when we go shopping and we're focusing on ourselves," she said. "I think sometimes we just need to give back to those, even those that we don't know, and just do something cause it's the right thing to do."

This attitude of "doing the right thing" was being encouraged by several area Girl and Boy Scout troops, who have been volunteering at Hartland locations over the past couple of weekends. Although their favorite part may have been the hot chocolate and ringing the bells, the lessons of giving seem simple enough coming from a young child's perspective.

"Everyone should get a present," said Marissa Carson, 8, from a Brownie troop based out of . 

With days till Christmas slowly counting down, officials say there is still an opportunity to donate time or money to help out those in need.

"We don't do it on our own," Jennifer Ortman said. "We need the volunteers to ring the bells for us and we need people who are willing to give."

If you or a group is interested in becoming a becoming a bell ringer, the number to call is 517-546-4750. For online donations, please go to www.usc.salvationarmy.org or the address to mail in donations is: The Salvation Army, PO Box 647, Howell MI 48844.

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