Confessions of a Bell Ringer

Brad Molnar
Special to the Outlook
Monday, December 17, 2018
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Yuletide shoppers are familiar with the tinkle of bells wafting above the tinny sounds of Christmas songs, wafting above the din of beleaguered parents searching for the “must have” toy of the season.   

Bell ringers stand apart as they represent the opportunity to give during the season of giving; to give to strangers along with whose name you drew at work, or to pile gifts on gifts for opening on Christmas Day. The Red Kettles of the Salvation Army have been the definitive spirit of Christmas for 125 years.

The iconic Red Kettles can be found in Korea, Japan, Chili and many European countries but are prominent across the United States. In Billings/Laurel there are twenty kettle sites. On a good day five or six of them are manned by volunteers. The rest are paid volunteers receiving $10 per hour to ring their bells. Some start at 10 a.m. and work till 7 p.m. Ninety percent of those are former members of the Salvation Army that were helped by its programs.

In Billings the $1 million worth of programs are run by three full-time staff, one part-time cook, and a plethora of volunteers. Half of the money goes for programs to feed the poor ... 8000 meals a month. Salvation Army vans pull up in low income areas and honk their horn. Those that respond are fed; no questions asked.

When financially challenged families run out of gas while passing through Billings the Salvation Army will buy them a tank of gas. Coordinating with other social service providers, mental health and job training are made available. Last year in Yellowstone County the Army put 32 families on the path from homeless to home ownership. During disasters the Salvation Army is there.

While the kettles are an important funding mechanism the majority is from community donations and grants; there is zero federal or state taxpayer funding of the SA which functions as a church. They believe you can speak of salvation but if the listener is hungry they cannot hear. So the SA is devoted to easing the burden of the poor so they might accept an offer to improve their lot physically and spiritually.

Most of the Intermountain Region of the Salvation Army is raising less money than past campaigns. But Billings is ahead of last year. In Montana no kettles have been stolen this year. That is not true in other states. We can take pride in that but the future is a challenge. With fewer shoppers due to on-line shopping and many people not carrying cash because of credit cards the future of the Red Kettles is uncertain.  

I have not always been a do-gooder. My wife introduced me to missionary work three years ago in the Chinese border mountains of Myanmar, Vietnam and Cambodia, termed the Golden Triangle because of the opium trade. When I told her of an invitation to be bell ringers for the SA she said, “Oh, as like in China I ring the bell to raise money for the cancer?” “Exactly.”  I am now so hooked that I bell ring even if my wife cannot make it. Goofing with the kids as they put in their pennies, old ladies putting in more than they can afford while saying “God bless you,” to me, and knowing I am working off red ink while earning pennies in heaven makes the hours fly by … and its easier than dodging army patrols in the mountains of south central China.

Due to a lack of bell ringers Red Kettle locations are often unmanned. Idea! take a location for four hours, have half the family “ring” the site for two hours while the other half shops, then trade. Caroling groups can augment a spot and fill a kettle in minutes. Perhaps you could sort/distribute the mountain of toys brought by the Road Dog motorcycle riders to the Salvation Army Christmas tree in Rimrock Mall. Why not start a new family tradition? For more information on these and other opportunities to serve call Captain Warriner at 907-957-6878. Just bring your smile. At least carry a dollar in your pocket for the next kettle you pass. 


This is supposed to be a political column. OK. Name any government program that feeds eight thousand people a month, cares for the indigent, and provides life skills and job training, with a staff of three and one half time cook with a $1M budget.  

As Colombo use to say, “Just one more thing,” reflect on what Yellowstone County would look like without the volunteers of the Salvation Army.


Do you prefer Skittles or Reese’s Peanutbutter Cups for Halloween?

The Laurel Outlook


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