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One Small Change

Ringing in the Holidays

The author shows off his ringing technique from his command post.

This month’s One Small Change is about exercising my maximus philanthropis, or building up my heart muscle in a way that for once isn’t cardiovascular. As part of my attempt to make a small change in my life to help others, and in the process discover strategies for you to do the same, I volunteered this past weekend as Red Kettle bell-ringer.

1000 hours, east entrance to the Lehigh Valley Mall, Whitehall, PA - Major Carol Duperree has just finished issuing my official uniform: a red Salvation Army apron and a small bell. She has also assembled my equipment: the signature plastic red kettle, double-padlocked and suspended from a tripod beneath a large Army sign. Now she’s delivering my final orders:

  • Ring the bell loudly so people will hear it and have time to get their money ready.
  • Face the store not the parking lot because people are more likely to donate after shopping.
  • Smile, be personable, and thank everyone.
  • If there’s any trouble (a bell ringer was assaulted and robbed in Toledo recently) surrender the kettle.
  • Look for someone to relieve you every two hours.

That’s it, Volunteer. Proceed!

And so I’m dug in for a 10-hour shift at the front lines on one of the biggest shopping battle-days of the Christmas season. I’m in a small lobby between sets of doubles doors, an area that’s sheltered but not entirely warm. Since it’s still early, I’m alone with one of the mall custodians. He’s on his knees talking to himself as he polishes the glass doors. From this vantage point, I have a full view of the women’s intimate apparel section inside the department store, where a buy-one-get-one-free sale is about to go down. Howitzer D-cups are pointed directly my way, and I suspect things could get ugly.

“Hey buddy,” hisses the custodian, who has a Batman insignia tattooed on his face. “Try not to let people smudge the glass, okay? It really pisses me off.”

I ring my bell louder and look nervously away.

1130 hours: I’m mistaken for a homeless person. 

Mall traffic is picking up. The doors are constantly swinging open and closed. The glass is already hopelessly smudged. But my kettle is filling up. Not surprisingly the most action comes from little old ladies. No matter how laden they are with packages or how cumbersome their walkers, they always manage to stop and pop open their change purse.

“The Salvation Army helped me years ago,” says one woman, “and I never forget them.”

“I don’t know why I just can’t resist the tinkle of your bell!” exclaims another.

“Good luck to you,” says a third, patting my shoulder. “I hope you get your life together.”

What? Do I look homeless? This is my good jacket!

Then an idea hits. Maybe if I slip my arm out of my jacket and just let the sleeve dangle, I’ll double my take….

1220 hours: I learn that Wal-Mart is the mother lode.

To keep myself entertained, I try guessing who will give and who will ignore me. For some reason people with really fancy sunglasses never donate. Maybe they just can’t see me. Children are always puzzled by what I’m doing and stare. But when given a few coins by mom or dad, they respond enthusiastically. I let them ring the bell as a reward, and they love it. One little guy, a particularly vigorous ringer, has such a good time that he says he’s going to ask Santa for a big bell, which momentarily terrifies his mother. Men, for the most part, are grudging givers. If they’re alone, they rarely stop. But if they’re with a spouse, they’re usually goaded into digging in their pockets. By far, though, the most generous are those who look the most destitute. Perhaps it’s because they know what it’s like to be needy. In fact, I later learn that ringers outside Wal-Mart collect the most money. Interesting.

1440 hours: I contemplate calling Homeland Security.

I’m getting deeper into my shift, and things are heating up even more. It’s crowded, people are getting testy, nearly as much return merchandise is coming in as new merchandise is going out. The glass doors are totally smudged, bras are laying on the department-store floor, and I am in the thick of the maelstrom. One young woman in leotards shushes me as she gabs on her cell phone. I ring louder. A seedy-looking character in fatigues comes into my lobby with a duffel bag. He looks nervous and suspicious as he sets it down. Holy cow! What if it’s a bomb? Then a fight breaks out in the parking lot. Car doors get slammed. Tires (and ankles) are kicked. Traffic backs up. Mall cops swarm. But I jingle on….

1600 hours: I’m mistaken for a customer-service rep.

One thing I didn’t anticipate was fielding so many questions. I mean, do I look like I work here?

“Excuse me, how late is the store open?”

“Is there another exit? This one doesn’t look familiar?”

“Can you watch my mother while I pull the car around?”

“Can you help me find my car?”

"Can you help me find my mother?"

“Can you tell me when this coupon expires; the print is too small?”

“Do you know what bus will take me to Bethlehem?”

“Can you recommend a good gift for a guy about your age?”

And so on....

1730 hours: I find the source of the swine-flu epidemic.

Ground zero is mall vestibules just like this one all across America. Never—I repeat never—touch the door handles with your bare hands. I actually witnessed a guy blow his nose and repeatedly cough into a large blue handkerchief then literally swab the door bars with it as he craned his neck looking for his bus. Quick, flick on the Batman searchlight. We need some serious scrubbing in here.

1800 hours: I resort to large amounts of caffeine.

I’ve been on my feet for eight hours, and I’m feeling it. My knees are crackling from the drafty cold, my back aches, my shoulders are sore, and I fear I’m going to have chronic tinnitus from this damn bell. Let me tell you, these Salvation Army people are warriors. We should send them to get the job done in Afghanistan. You want a new workout? Volunteer for a shift. On my next break, I sit dazed in Fireplace Land for 10 minutes, then head for Starbucks.

1920 hours: I herald the end to the economic crisis.

It’s dark and cold outside, and I’m in the homestretch of my shift. It’s been a very good day for the Army. My kettle is stuffed. (Major Duperree will later estimate there’s $600 in there.) In fact, judging from the activity I’ve seen today, I’m going on record as saying the recession is over. All this buying, all this giving…somebody get me Bernanke at the Fed.

1950 hours: I count the change.

As I’m getting ready to hand in my apron and call it a night, a well-dressed, middle-age gentlemen deposits $5 in my kettle.

“Thanks for what you do,” he says, holding out his hand.

“Me?” I respond, surprised.

“Yes, you,” he says with a smile. “Thanks for doing good.”

As he walks away, my fatigue magically lifts. I feel more buoyant. I’ve thanked and wished more people “Merry Christmas” in these last 10 hours than I usually do in an entire holiday season. And I’ve seen continuous examples of little kindnesses—people holding doors for one another and, of course, donating to my kettle. Rarely, and especially at this hectic time of year, does one see so many flickers of goodness in such a small area. It leads me to believe that there’s a lot more of it in the world than I suspected. After a long day of collecting small change, I have to say I feel changed.

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About The Author

Joe Kita – Joe Kita is a noted writer, editor, motivational speaker and teacher. He authors the blog "One Small Change" for CorePerformance.com.

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Tags: Leisure Time, Weekend