BANGOR, Maine — One of the earliest and noisiest signals of the holiday season will hit Bangor’s storefronts on Nov. 23 this year, as the Salvation Army starts an annual fundraising campaign that sustains most of what it does through the next year.
Salvation Army Capt. Tim Clark said 22 red kettles will be set up outside businesses in Bangor and Brewer, manned by a staff of 35 bell ringers and volunteer groups.
“It’s not just about Christmas, it’s really a way for people in the community to support our work throughout the year,” Clark said during an interview Friday at the Salvation Army.
Typically, the kettles don’t go out until after Thanksgiving, but because the holiday is so late in the month this year — Nov. 28 — the Salvation Army is kicking off its efforts the Saturday before, according to Clark.
Clark said the Bangor branch of the Salvation Army, which also serves Brewer, Exeter, Glenburn, Hermon, Kenduskeag, Levant, Orrington and Veazie, hopes to raise about $140,000 from its kettles this year. In an average year, the Salvation Army brings in about $125,000, but that take is expected to increase after the bell ringers set up outside a new store this year — Hobby Lobby.
That money doesn’t just fund what the Salvation Army does around Christmas time, such as buying toys for needy children or providing heating oil assistance. It also pays for a portion of everything the organization does throughout the year. That includes everything from food pantry operations to a children’s summer camp, Clark said.
The kettle drive brings in between one-third and one-fourth of all donations for the year, according to Clark.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage made the first kettle donation of the year in Maine on Nov. 14 at the State House.
Salvation Army is a global evangelical Christian organization, with a focus on charitable works. Statewide, the group hopes to raise $800,000 this year with its red kettle campaign.
Bangor’s Salvation Army has a staff of about 35 bell ringers who earn minimum wage, standing in the cold, ringing bells to draw attention to the kettles.
Thomas Ireland, 60, of Bangor, went to the Salvation Army in 1992 looking for work. He’s been a bell ringer off and on ever since, ringing a total of about eight years, he said.
He has a favorite spot that he always vies for when kettle season hits — Macy’s at the Bangor Mall, the one closest to Uno’s.
“I do it just for the fun of it,” Ireland said during a recent interview. “If you ever come up to the mall at Macy’s front, you’ll always see me with a smile on my face and opening doors.”
It’s common for people to shout out his nickname, “Gramps,” when they see him and come over to drop change in the kettle, he said.
Ireland’s first dealings with Salvation Army came in 1979 when he lost most of his belongings in a fire. Later, the organization helped him through his struggle with alcoholism. He said bell ringing is his way of giving back to an organization that has given him a hand up, and it helps to have a little extra seasonal income now that he’s retired.
“The bell ringing is more than just a job, because most of our bell ringers understand when they’re out there, they’re collecting money to support our services,” Clark said.
The kettle drive originated in 1891 in San Francisco, according to the Salvation Army. A Salvation Army captain wanted to find a way to give the area’s poor a free Christmas dinner. He set up a large pot on ferry landings, where passers-by could drop donations for the dinner. The idea stuck and spread.
Each year, the kettles receive some interesting donations. They range from loose nuts and bolts, probably dropped in by accident among loose change, to foreign currencies, according to Ireland.
Last year, the Salvation Army received two especially surprising donations — wedding bands. They were well-worn rings which were dropped into a bucket, along with notes clarifying that they weren’t in there by accident.
One note read, “I learned a short time ago not to wish for great wealth, but to wish for enough. When we purchased these rings, we didn’t have much, but it was enough. Our wish for you is that you always have enough. Merry Christmas and a prosperous New Year.”
“The Salvation Army Christmas kettle is very much a sign of the season,” Clark said. “It reminds us that the purpose of Christmas is giving.”