By Sandy Scarmack
Herald Staff Writer
— Jumping right in there with Black Friday as the unofficial start of the holiday season, the Salvation Army’s bell ringers made their debut Monday, kicking off a traditional fundraising campaign familiar to all.
Volunteer bell ringers will man the red kettles at 10 locations throughout the Shenango Valley, hoping to meet or exceed a $65,000 goal, said Capt. Scott Flanders, who mans the kettles a couple of hours each week, just so he doesn’t “lose the connection to it.”
The Salvation Army, he said, is a church, loosely based on a Methodist theology, but one less tied to dogma and liturgy than most. “We’re a church that is more about doing,” the 45-year-old commander of the Sharon Salvation Army on Fisher Hill.
The money raised in the four-week kettle drive goes to fund several of the organization’s programs that help those in need, but especially, he said, for meals at this time of year.
“Every year we place over 100,000 grocery orders. That’s people who come in and need some kind of assistance. Thank God for the Community Food Warehouse of the Shenango Valley. They’re a huge help to us,” he said.
On Thursday, the Salvation Army will host a Thanksgiving dinner for about 850 people, some of whom will come there to eat and others whose meals will be delivered by volunteers.
The money raised during the Christmas season is also used to send 67 children to summer camp in Ellwood City, an experience, Flanders said, that is “simply incredible.”
“When you see how sending those children to camp changes them and their reaction to it, it’s indescribable,” he added.
Part of the money funds a senior citizen program held every Friday for between 80 and 120 seniors. Breakfast and lunch are served, along with informational programs and activities.
Flanders said 100 percent of the money donated is used for the Army’s programs. “We don’t have a slush fund. There’s no corporate ski resort in Colorado for our staff. We have a zero budget. What comes in equals what goes out,” he said.
The classic Christmas carol “Silver Bells”, released in 1950, was written by Jay Livingston and the alleged inspiration came from the bells used by Salvation Army bell ringers and Santa Clauses on New York streetcorners. Flanders said early in his career with the Salvation Army he rang the bells in New York City for a 12-hour shift, several days a week, a part of his training.
“Time passed a little quicker in New York City. You’d have some guy rollerskating in his underwear and the next an impromptu band would strike up beside you. It was pretty interesting,” he laughed.
Aside from the slower pace in Mercer County, there is one significant change from the earlier days. “Nobody is carrying cash anymore. Everyone is using debit cards. And the kettles don’t have a machine to swipe cards,” he said._“We’re a little bit behind the ball on that one,” he said. Still, people make the effort to give, he said. “I’ve seen people run to the ATM and come back with a donation or if they remember, they get cash back at the register.”
“I think they see us out there and they may not know what we do with the money, but they know they want to help others. I think we could probably raise even more money if we could reach that younger generation that now goes cashless,” he said.
Online donations are possible, he said, via the Salvation Army’s website. “It’s designated by ZIP code, so when you put your ZIP code in, the money will come to us,” he said. Checks can be sent to the Salvation Army, 660 Fisher Hill, Sharon, 16146.
Flanders said he has hundreds of volunteers for the kettle drive, but still not enough. “You’re talking about 3000 hours to cover. That’s a lot of hours,” he said. Volunteers staff the kettles generally from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., in several-hour shifts.
Flanders also said he wished more people understood the intent behind the Salvation Army. “It’s about helping. That’s all. Helping people. I have the greatest job. I get paid to help people,” he said.
Flanders, his wife, Leslie, also a captain with the Salvation Army and a staff of nine work year round to feed, clothe and shelter the less-fortunate. For example, the agency provides 1,700 people a year with emergency housing. “That might mean a night in a hotel, or helping someone stay in their house so they are not homeless,” he said.
He said when he was younger, he had no idea what the Salvation Army was about. “Honestly? I thought it was a place that you took your old clothes to. I remember doing that once a year with my Dad,” he said.
Once he learned more, he said he fell in love with the “faith in action” theme of the organization.
Anyone interested in volunteering for the kettle drive or any of the organization’s other efforts can contact Flanders or Cheryl Murchek at (724 347-5537.