SIKESTON - Thursday Americans gave thanks. Beginning today, the Salvation Army bell ringers hope Americans give generously.
For the seventh year, the bell ringers will man the familiar kettles, hanging beneath the red-and-white Salvation Army sign at the two entrances of the Sikeston Wal-Mart Supercenter. Now through Christmas they will ring their bells in hopes of filling the kettles, which in turn fills the coffers for the New Madrid County Salvation Army.
"We just call it the smile and greet - smile and say thank you," said Jerry Lathum, who organizes the bell-ringing crews for the New Madrid County Salvation Army. "Whatever the person is willing to donate is welcome - pennies to nickels to dimes to quarters to dollars. That's the way it works. If we didn't have smaller donations we wouldn't be able to do the good we do and occasionally we are blessed with a very sizable donation."
Working with volunteers from almost every community in New Madrid County, Lathum has some 170 individuals who will spend from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (and sometimes 5 p.m.) for 11 days ringing the bells for donations. In groups of two, they will take two-hour shifts every Friday and Saturday with a extra push for donations the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday prior to Christmas Day.
According to Lathum, bell ringers range in age from "9 to 90." Volunteers come from community organizations such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, local churches and school groups.
Once they have rung the bell, they are usually hooked, Lathum added.
"After the person does it that first time, they understand it is reasonably easy and they see the benefit. Often they get as much out of the bell ringing as the person who benefits from the Salvation Army," said Lathum.
Bellringers often return with stories offered by those who donate. They tell the volunteers about how they were helped by the Salvation Army either in New Madrid County or elsewhere. In New Madrid County, the money is used for many things such as purchasing fans for use during hot summer months or to assisting those who have lost their homes or belongings to fires.
Kim Simmons of Portageville joined the brigade of bell ringer. It's a good feeling to know you are helping someone, she said.
"There are a lot of people who come in here who need help," she said about her job at the New Madrid County Health Center. "We've helped (through the Salvation Army) senior citizens buy medicine, get children glasses ... anyone that has a need and can't get help can turn to the Salvation Army."
According to Lathum all the money raised will stay local to help those in need. Each year the New Madrid County Salvation Army is able to help some 150 to 200 individuals with the funds raised in the kettle campaign.
"We try not to be frivolous with the money because the public has entrusted with the funds," said Lathum. "We want to use to benefit as many people as we possibly can."
For Pam White of Matthews, ringing the bell is a family project. She has volunteered the past four years and will take her turn again this year. Her daughters have taken turns as bell ringers as well as her son, who began when he was 10 with her and now has his own shift next to the kettle.
Like Simmons, she said it is something they enjoy doing. "When I ring I know I'm doing a good deed. A few people look at you like you are getting on their nerves with the ringing but they don't understand how many people are helped by the money we raise. More often if people see you ringing the bells they will automatically start reaching in their pockets, digging for change."
After one winter session, White recalled her daughter coming home with story about a woman with several children, including one who had been severely burned. "She put five dollars in the kettle and my daughter must have had a look on her face. The woman turned to her and said: 'Don't worry honey, there are people out there that need it worse than we do.' "
Sometimes the donations come with a thank you from the donor before the volunteer can even offer a thank you of their own, said Lathum. "So often when you thank them, they smile broadly as if to say yes I want to be a part of what you are doing."