Thursday, December 19, 2013

Day 221 - Volunteering for the Salvation Army

I have never volunteered for the Salvation Army. As a part of my ongoing “I have never...” journey, I have maintained the goal of volunteering one place I have never volunteered each month. With this goal in mind, I put together a list of potential volunteer opportunities early in my “I have never...” year, which included working a volunteer shift as a bell ringer during the Salvation Army’s annual “red kettle” holiday drive. As a result, last month I began investigating the possibility of volunteering some time in December. Thanks to the Salvation Army’s user friendly volunteer signup process, I was able to easily locate a volunteer shift that worked with my schedule. In turn, I worked through the month until my first experience bell ringing for the Salvation Army was upon me this evening. With a two hour shift of bell ringing ahead of me, I left my office this evening and made my way to the local East Towne Mall in my home town of Madison.

The mall...
When I arrived at the mall I came upon my bell ringing station almost immediately after I passed through the massive building’s food court doors. A fellow volunteer greeted me with a smile as I approached his position near a hanging red metal bucket. I promptly introduced myself to the man, who outstretched his free hand and gave me a firm handshake. Amid the sound of sleigh bells emanating from the constant motion of his left hand, the man walked me through the straightforward volunteer process, handing me a series of bells, a stick to force the contents of the bucket downward as necessary, and a folding chair for placing my belongings. In response, I quickly looked over my surroundings and formulated my approach for the volunteer event. The task seemed simple enough, but my mind immediately started working on ways I could maximize donations during my shift. After all, I had one objective, to make the most of the experience.

Moments after the man explained the process he transitioned the bell ringing task to me and prepared to leave. After confirming I had everything I needed to begin my shift, the man made his way for the doors, leaving me to man the red kettle for the remainder of the evening. Realizing my task was at hand, I took a few minutes to shift the kettle to a more open position of the mall food court and found the bell that best balanced loudness and tolerability as to make sure I attracted the right kind of attention. Confident I had set myself up for success, I removed my coat, picked up my bell, and took my position next to the hanging red kettle. Then, without hesitation I began swinging my hand back and forth.

The sound of my bell carried through the air and filled the space near the mall entrance. Almost immediately people began swinging by my location and greeting me as they stuffed money into the kettle at my side. I greeted each with a “thank you” and smile as they walked near, which caused them to shoot back a smile or a quiet “you’re welcome” once they were finished with their task. Within minutes of me beginning my bell ringing shift I found myself faced with a steady influx of shoppers dropping money into my kettle. At first, the frequency of donations slightly caught me off guard. While I expected I would receive a decent amount of donations during my volunteer shift, the procession of people spanning all ages and demographics that dropped coins and bills into the container was frequent enough to keep me saying “thank you” each time I turned my head. The generosity I was witnessing was a sight to behold, which was enough to lift my spirits and inspire me to keep my bell ringing.

With the moderate pace of donations coming my way, the time of my volunteer shift moved quickly. After what seemed like a brief period, I checked the clock on my phone to find some 45 minutes of my two hour block had already passed. Although surprising, I realized the pace of the shift was a good sign that I was keeping busy greeting those people that chose to donate. The thought alone forced a smile onto my face as I turned my attention back to the passing groups of people walking through the mall.

As I put my phone back in my pocket and looked up, a young man approached me and started dropping a handful of silver coins into the bucket at my side. “You know, what you are doing is a good thing,” he said as he funneled the coins toward the slot at the top of the kettle. “My family moved up here from Chicago when I was little, and the Salvation Army was there for us when we had nothing. We’re all good now... Doing well, actually, but I don’t know how we would have made it without them,” he said as the last of his coins passed into the container. Stepping back from the kettle he looked at me and continued, “That’s why I donate every time I see one of these things. Thanks for doing it, man.” Touched by his story, I struggled to find the right response. “That’s amazing,” I said, “but I should be thanking you for donating. I’m just volunteering a bit of time.” A smile crossing his face, he shot me a quick reply, “I wouldn’t have anywhere to donate if it weren’t for you, though.”

Tools of the trade
 Before I could respond, the man patted me on the shoulder and continued on his way. After a brief pause, I looked down at the bell shaking in my hand and thought about his remarks. “Something so simple... It really helps people,” I muttered to myself as I lifted my head back to face the throngs of people streaming through the space around me. I looked on as people passed under the yellow glow of streaming holiday lights running the length of the mall and felt the corners of my mouth lift slightly. In that moment the swell of joy rising from my center was nearly enough to lift me from the ground. A passing moment with a generous random stranger put the entire experience in perspective, and it was only the first of many thanks I would receive for ringing a little golden bell this evening.

Over the next hour the crowds of people around me dissipated. As the clock wound toward 8:00, the food court emptied rapidly and the activity in the aisles of the shopping mall dwindled; however, the majority of the people passing my location still stopped to offer small donations. The giving inspired me to continue swinging my arm in the steady beat I had developed over the previous hour and a half, even during periods where there were no people passing my location. Inspired by the interactions I had experienced with so many people earlier in the night, I was determined to keep the bell ringing until the end of my volunteer shift. In response a woman approached me after an extended period of stillness at the mall’s entrance. She greeted me with a smile and touched the shoulder of my free arm as she spoke, “You know, I donated on my way in, but I just wanted to let you know I think what you are doing is wonderful. With no one around you could easily stop ringing, but you don’t. I could hear that bell from halfway down the walkway, and it put a smile on my face.” I nodded my head and thanked her for her remarks as. Continuing on her path, the woman looked back at me and smiled, “Oh, and Merry Christmas!” In response, I waved to her, looked at my kettle, and shook the container to get the money free from the donation slot; keeping my bell ringing all the while.

I'm trying... but it just might be my own I'm changing
 Eventually, my volunteer shift drew to a close around the 8:00 hour. After inadvertently ringing about 10 minutes longer than the scheduled end of my shift, I gathered the volunteer supplies, set them on top of the kettle, and removed the red container from its hook. The weight of the kettle caught me off guard at first, which almost caused me to lose the bells and other supplies I had placed on its top surface. Happy with the results of my efforts, I carried the container to its designated storage location and proceeded to clean up the space. Just as quickly as the experience had begun, it drew to a close with a series of relatively uneventful tasks.

As I threw on my coat, I looked at the empty hook resting near the food court entrance and thought about what I could take away from the experience. It was obvious I felt great, and I had a lot of fun interacting with people over the course of my two hour shift. However, I knew there was more to the experience than those initial feelings of gratification. As I flashed through the people that had donated money throughout the course of the evening, I realized the vast majority of them likely didn’t have much money to spare, but they still chose to donate to my little red kettle. While it was something simple, that fact left me with a feeling of hope I haven’t felt in some time. It was a stark reminder of the inherent good in people and the power of ordinary acts in lifting those in need. From that I could only conclude that if that experience comes from ringing a little golden bell for a few hours, it is more than worth the effort.

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