By Craig Marx, Editor
The Salvation Army bell ringers have become as much of a staple of the holiday season as sleigh rides and Santa himself. Braving the cold and snow to help bring in charitable funds for Langlade County, the venerable Bill Kelly has been in charge of the local volunteer contingent for 15 years now.
“I started with the Salvation Army in 2001 after selling a lumber yard I owned in Elcho. When I took over, they were ringing at only one location in town – Lakeside – and now we are up to seven,” Kelly recalled.
The Salvation Army currently has manned kettles at Fleet Farm, Wal-Mart, Copps, Walgreens, Peebles, Lakeside Market, and Butch’s SuperValu. In addition to the friendly volunteers that take time out of their week to help bring in collections, Kelly has also set up 50 countertop kettles at various places throughout the county to help the Army’s cause and also alleviate gas station and convenience store customers of burdensome change.
Kelly has taken the holiday bell ringing program and ran with it. With an estimated $12,000 collected in his first year at the helm, Kelly was up to as much as $100,000 brought in during the 2015 season after setting a goal of $75,000 to begin with.
Despite his most diligent efforts, finding volunteers continues to be an ongoing struggle. About 30 people a day are required to man all the shifts over the seven locations’ span. But Kelly also has a crop of dedicated volunteers that put in their unselfish time on a regular basis – Antigo residents Gino McKenna and Scot Peterson work the bell for the Salvation Army four hours a day, five days a week through the season.
“It’s hard to convince people to come out and volunteer when it’s cold or bad weather. It is especially difficult filling the 10 am to 2 pm or 2 pm to 6 pm shifts during the day. But I also like to remind people that we have three locations that let volunteers ring bells inside: Walgreens, Copps and Lakeside,” Kelly said.
The Salvation Army’s bell ringing season lasts from Nov. 15 through Dec. 24. and has a number of specialty events throughout its course. This Friday marks the Realtors Ring Day by local real estate agents, while Dec. 9 is the annual Match Day at Lakeside, where the staple market-pharmacy will match in kind the end-of-day kettle total in front of its store.
Kelly has seen some fairly exotic deposits collected from his ringers’ kettles over the years. For the past two seasons in a row, a mysterious yet philanthropic depositor has left a $20 gold coin in one of Kelly’s buckets – a charitable gift Kelly values at $1,200. In addition to gold, a diamond ring was also collected in 2015.
The good will that comes with both those that donate and those that volunteer was discovered many years ago for Kelly.
“I was in the service from 1946 to 1954. When I was stationed in the Philippines and Japan, the Salvation Army had canteens set up everywhere. I thought they really made a difference,” Kelly said.
Now, in Langlade County, Kelly and his volunteers include adults, church groups, youth hockey players, choral groups, and anyone that wishes to help the community. As more and more volunteers are needed to help promote the famous red kettles and the spirit of the holidays itself, Kelly is optimistic and pleased with the community’s appreciation.
“The community has been very helpful. It’s been more than I anticipated at times and there have been some good responses from local businesses. The biggest thing is we need bell ringers. If people see a bell ringer by a kettle, they are more likely to come over,” Kelly said.