Erik Afton was born to be a Salvation Army bell ringer.
His 10-hour shifts – five times the length of most – spring from a deep desire to give back to the organization that once saved his family from dire straits.
“I was a child in a single parent family that benefited from the Salvation Army,” he recalled, his voice choking up at the memory. “I can relate to the kids who may get little or nothing this year.”
Afton has been manning a kettle for 16 years, off and on. He started volunteering as a teenager in his hometown of Holland, Mich.
And though it’s cold and his fingers may hurt from constantly ringing the bell, he said he appreciates every donation, no matter how small.
“One year I had a little kid put all her savings from her piggy bank in the kettle. That was awesome,” said Afton, who spends most of his shifts at the Oleson’s on Three Mile and Hammond roads. “And just today, a lady gave her last dime that was in her purse.”
The Salvation Army bell ringers and their shiny red kettles are a part of the area’s holiday magic, as well as a big fundraiser for the faith-based international humanitarian aid organization. Last year, Traverse City’s 24 locations collected $178,000 from passers-by.
This year the goal is $180,000, said Captain Daren Spencer, who was literally born in the Salvation Army.
“All the money raised goes to support the work of the Salvation Army in the Traverse City area,” said Spencer, whose 16-year-old unwed mother gave birth to him at the Salvation Army Booth Memorial Hospital in Grand Rapids. “This allows us to meet physical needs such as utilities, housing, and food assistance, our lunch program, disaster services and character building youth programs, just to name a few.”
While some of the bell ringers are paid the $7.45 minimum wage, the Salvation Army encourages volunteers to ring at the kettles in two-hour shifts. Not only does it help the charity’s bottom line, but it also helps put people in the Christmas spirit, Spencer said.
“Bell ringing is a great way for people to give, if they feel they can’t give monetarily,” he said. “By volunteering for at least two hours ringing the bell, they can make a great impact in our community.”
Bell ringing, however, isn’t the only thing the Salvation Army does this time of year to assist the less fortunate. Donors can also pick the names of an anonymous needy family and buy them gifts. Spencer said last year, 95 families with a combined 300 children had a happier holiday because of the program.
“I was overwhelmed with thankfulness,” wrote one parent in a thank you note. “In a split second I realized my children would have a beautiful Christmas because of a complete stranger’s selfless act.”
If you’d like to donate to the Salvation Army, or volunteer as a bell ringer, call 231-946-4644.
Salvation Army by the Numbers
During 2011, the Salvation Army spent $3.23 billion serving people, down from $3.24 billion the prior year. Eighty-two cents of every dollar spent, or $2.65 billion, went toward program services; the remainder was accounted for by management and general expenses of $380 million and by fundraising costs of $196 million. Approximately 74 percent of these expenditures were funded by public and other operating support received during the year.