- Associated Press - Monday, December 15, 2014

MOLINE, Ill. (AP) - When it comes to marketing strategies, Paige Hartrich has her’s down pat: a smile, some antlers and a little interpretive dance.

The 8-year-old is just one of about 400 to 500 bell ringers who will brave frosty temperatures and throngs of bustling shoppers this year to collect donations for Salvation Army of the Quad Cities.

On a recent blustery day in Moline, cheeks flushed from the cold, Paige shivers in a bright red apron and green felt antlers, her mittens clutched tightly around a cup of hot chocolate.

At age 4, she developed a passion for bell ringing — “It was something on my bucket list,” she said (the other item being a trip in a hot air balloon).

Each year since, Paige and her family — dad John, mom Katie and 6-year-old sister Lydia — have gone bell ringing at Hy-Vee on Avenue of the Cities, often going to elaborate lengths to attract donations.

In previous years, they’ve donned Santa, elf and reindeer costumes (Dad’s appearance as Buddy the Elf still sends the girls into fits of giggles). And Paige said her strategy often involves singing a holiday tune or breaking out in dance moves.

“‘Interpretive’ is the best way to describe it,” dad John says with a smile.

This year’s costumes were decidedly more subdued to combat Saturday’s 20-degree temperatures, including snow pants, gloves, boots and winter jackets.

“And hot chocolate!” Paige shouts. The 8-year-old says her favorite part of bell ringing is meeting different shoppers.

And the worst part?

“Waiting here so long,” Lydia chimes in.

John smiles and says,”They’re good after about 15 minutes.”

He said people tend to be more generous when they see the girls out bell ringing. The charitable act seems to have had an effect on the girls as well — 6-year-old Lydia gave up going to a friend’s birthday party Saturday in order to bell ring.

A man passing by drops a few dollars into the red donation kettle and points to Paige’s antlers. “Gotta pay for those ears,” he says with a laugh.

Across the river, 10 miles and 80 years separate Paige from 92-year-old Esther Rahenkamp, a nearly lifelong Salvation Army member who is known to her friends only as “Captain Ray.”

Standing in the food court at NorthPark Mall, the petite woman in the black Salvation Army uniform vigorously rings a tiny hand bell and stands beside an enormous, 700-pound donation kettle.

“They tell me I’m 4‘10” ” she says, her chin barely reaching the top of the kettle, which stands over 5-feet tall with the handle. At nearly 4-feet wide, it is one of only two kettles of its size in the Quad-Cities, the other being at SouthPark Mall in Moline.

Most bell ringers work two-hour shifts, but Captain Ray travels hundreds of miles each year to work around the clock till Christmastime at her bell-ringing station.

Her parents had been Salvation Army officers and, in 1968, she went into officer training herself. She’s been helping in various capacities at the organization ever since.

“It gets in your blood,” she says with a laugh.

Since 2001, she’s lived in Avon Park in central Florida but comes back to the Quad-Cities each year with the help of Maj. Gary Felton, a good friend and local Salvation Army coordinator, to take up her post as bell ringer — often as much as eight hours per day, six days per week.

“The point is to look them in the eye and greet them because a lot of them will go by — they’ve got stuff on their mind, they don’t even know you’re there,” she said. “I try to speak to all of them, that’s the secret.”

Financial woes for some families have not seemed to stymie donations.

Captain Ray said, in her experience, “The worse the economy, the more generous the people.”

Holly Nomura is the development director for Salvation Army of the Quad Cities and said she knows of other communities who are “not looking very bright” because of loss of industry and jobs.

“But here in the Quad-Cities … the number of people who come to see us is increasing. We try to get the word out to our citizens: about what homelessness means to someone and the trauma of living without a house,” she said.

Running from mid-November through Christmas Eve, bell ringing is the organization’s largest annual fundraiser, and the profits account for about 60 percent of the year’s budget. The Quad-Cities chapter raised $754,000 last year and is hoping to reach the $760,000 mark this year.

Ms. Nomura said 18 percent of proceeds go toward administrative needs and the other 82 percent is returned to the community through programs such as providing sports and art for children in need. A significant portion of the kettle fund donations are used for the family service center, which is the only emergency shelter and transitional housing which takes in men, as well as women and children.

In a given year, 450 people will call the shelter “home” — some for two months, others for longer, Ms. Nomura said. Families are guided through programs by a case manager until they’re able to be on their own again.

In addition to the volunteers, some Salvation Army regulars are paid to bell ring, to provide them with income around the holiday season.

For some, bell ringing allows an up-close-and-personal interaction with the community.

“People who like people really love to do it. It’s a really good way to rub elbows with your fellow man,” Ms. Nomura said.

For others, it’ been a lifetime passion or even a higher calling.

Lt. Greg Ehler and his wife served as volunteers with the Salvation Army in Aurora for about five years before coming to the Quad-Cities last year.

A former Army veteran who served in an infantry division as a sniper, Lt. Ehler now helps to coordinate the 29 bell ringing sites on the Illinois side of the river. None of his previous jobs come close to what he does now.

“We felt called to it,” he said. “Nothing else we were doing gave us satisfaction in what we were doing for the church. … I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”

Back at NorthPark, Captain Ray waves to a little girl and calls to busy shoppers bustling past.

“Merry Christmas! Good afternoon!” she shouts, throwing up her hands.

She makes an effort to greet everyone, even those who don’t stop, and says she’s constantly amazed by the generosity of children, who will donate the $1 or $2 they have to their name.

“When the children drop in money, I try to explain to them that if it were not for their money, some would not have Christmas dinner,” she says.

She said there’s no discrimination when it comes to giving — “the mere fact that there’s a need” is enough.

Surgery several years ago makes it hard for Captain Ray to stand for long spells of time, so sometimes she has to shout good tidings from a chair. She’ll take up her post for as long as she’s able, she said.

She smiles. “The minute you get the bell in my hand, I’m a different person.”


Source: The (Moline) Dispatch, https://bit.ly/1ulVBpQ


Information from: The Dispatch, https://www.qconline.com

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