Red Kettles ring in the holidays

James Neiss/staff photographerPat Boyer of Ransomville makes a generous donation at the Salvation Army kettle at the Lewiston Tops manned by volunteer Bell Ringer Michael Henderson.

The familiar sound of bells ringing can be heard at a select few grocery stores in western Niagara County, as the Salvation Army of Niagara Falls has begun accepting donations through its annual Red Kettle Campaign.

While the drive is under way at five Tops Friendly Markets locations from Sanborn to Lewiston, as well as Hobby Lobby, Niagara Falls Salvation Army Major Stephen Carroll Jr. said this past Saturday, kettles will be added at Wal-Mart, Sam’s Club and Big Lots.”

This year the local goal is the same as last year —  $100,000. Carroll said the decision not to increase the goal is based on overall economic hardship and the impact of the pandemic. The 2020 campaign raised $127,000.

“We exceeded the 2020 goal in large part because the family from the DiMino Tops placed a large donation into the kettle,” Carroll said

“The most common donation placed into our kettles is the $1 bill, often crumbled and wet from the snow falling,” he said. “When people say every dollar counts, well, that’s exactly true for us, every $1 bill. The backbone of our Christmas fundraising.”

That fundraising is an alternative to pursuing grants and other funding. All the money raised here stays local, too. Carroll pointed to social services such as the Army’s community gardens, fuel and rent assistance efforts, kids art and food programs including Thursday food distributions, as the beneficiaries of donations to the kettles.

The Red Kettle Campaign has been around for over 125 years and the official kick-off event here locally for this year’s drive will be the “Battle of the Bells” scheduled for 6pm on Saturday at the Factory Outlets. Carroll said the exact location would be the entrance near the customer service desk.

Community organizations such as the Lions Clubs, Kiwanis and the Justice League (in full costume), will have a friendly competition to see which can generate the most donations that day.

The group also intends to continue a new tradition it began last year in light of the pandemic. On its Facebook page at Salvation Army of Niagara Falls, New York, they will upload short videos of about 3 minutes in length, featuring local comedians. Carroll said, “plans are to upload new videos every Wednesday and Saturday.”

Still, the Red Kettle Campaign is a primary source of funding for all the local Salvation Army programs, Carroll said it accounts for about 1/3rd of the budget. In addition to the group’s social service offerings, he said that the kettle drive, along with other donations, helped to fund the community barbecue the group held this past summer.

“We averaged feeding about 150 people per day, some days were more than that,” Carroll said. “We also had a store that provided us with great cuts of meat, we were giving out prime rib and steak, in addition to the food it was a way to get people together outside during Covid.”

The event, Carroll said, was designed "to allow some social closeness, even while physical distancing, by bringing people together around food.”

For now, a large part of Carroll’s focus is on the kettle drive, with which he’s been involved for some 25 years, (he started at 11).

"I’m really excited about our team," he said. "Kettle workers are a special breed of people. They are great folks.”

There are several people including trumpeter Lew Custode, and one who goes by Ukulele Joe, who help draw a crowd around the kettles. Carroll also described one volunteer “with a deep gravelly voice that gets attention, but really makes an impression with his pleasant spirit, he always has a smile and wishes everyone Merry Christmas.”

The bell ringers have what Carroll called a friendly competition where they check each day’s contributions to compare how they are doing with the group’s goals.

While the Salvation Army aims for a 100% volunteer force, Carroll said a few bell ringers earn minimum wage, including some who put in extra hours. “It helps them and it helps us, one said she needed a few extra hours to pay a heat bill.”

Kettle drive collections are scheduled to continue until shortly after noon on Christmas Eve.

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