The Red Kettle bell ringers

Once again, Chicago is under occupation. An unwavering force of more than three thousand red-vested do-gooders has established operating bases throughout the city. Armed with bells, kettles and smiles, they are on a mission to feed millions. And that’s just the beginning.

“We helped over 140,000 people with assistance in Greater Chicago last year,” says Chez Ordonez, Public Relations Manager for the Salvation Army. “Mortgage, clothing, utility, prescription assistance. If you need help, the Salvation Army is going to help you.”

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Chanta Young, who rings the Red Kettle bell at Macy’s on State, says, “It’s all about the kids.”

One of the volunteers strengthening that devotion is Thurman Byrd, a Program Administrator for the Illinois Department of Human Services who started ringing a bell at the red kettle under the northern clock of the State St. Macy’s store five years ago.

“It was around the coldest day of the year,” he remembers. “But that first experience got me hooked. Parents giving their children coins to put into the kettle, the excitement that they were feeling, the joy of people experiencing happiness… it’s a very positive environment.”

The Salvation Army’s Red Kettle tradition was founded in 1891 by Captain Joseph McFee, who set up the first pot in San Francisco. Since then, it has arguably become the oldest and most successful crowd-funding effort on earth. Korea, Japan, Chile and several European countries ring the bell. Chicago’s kettles collected $2.3 million last year.

The Red Kettle at Macy’s is among the most popular of more than 1,000 in the city. Beginning December 12, it will host celebrity Bell Ringers of the Week. Radio personalities from WJKL 94.3 will join “Skates” and “Staley,” the mascots of the Chicago Wolves and the Chicago Bears, on Tuesday, Dec. 13th.

“We look for people who are truly willing to give their time, who are humble and want to give back,” says Ordonez, a former radio producer who volunteered as a bell ringer in Milwaukee before becoming the Salvation Army’s PR Manager in Chicago last year.

“When you ring a bell, you get a rush,” he continues. “I rang here when I first started. I tried singing, but it doesn’t work because I’m a horrible singer. People play music. Break dance. They’re engaging with the public.”

Thurman Byrd’s technique is to “just be who you are.”

“It never hurts to smile at somebody to get a smile back,” he says. “It’s values that I learned from my mom — open the doors for families to go into the store, thank them on behalf of the Salvation Army. It radiates with folks.”

Byrd arrived at the Macy’s Red Kettle location with a proven knack for giving back. He has spent years volunteering for the Chicago Hoop Squad, an organization that sponsors a basketball program for kids in Englewood. 

“We teach them values during practice,” he says. “It’s important for them to have a career instead of a job. It’s important to them to have an education.”

Besides coaching and teaching, the Squad organizes seminars and guest speakers for the kids. The events frequently take place at the Salvation Army’s Chicago Temple Corps, one of 29 institutions that also contain churches.

According to Ordonez, the Corps “function like community centers” and support the Salvation Army’s mission “to meet human needs without discrimination.” In addition to sponsoring neighborhood athletic programs, they distribute food, offer substance abuse counseling, provide day care, offer children’s activities and help the homeless.

“Last year,” he continues, “1,200 men, women and children found shelter through the Salvation Army.”

The Corps are largely funded by the annual Christmas Drive, which relies heavily on the change that people toss into the Red Kettles during Christmastime. These donations are solicited by thousands of employees and volunteers, like Thurman Byrd, who work in the cold without expecting any sort of material gain in return.

But they happily accept gestures of kindness.

“One day a family brought my buddy and me hot chocolate,” Byrd says. “That was a very powerful thing, because they appreciated what we were doing.”

— Daniel Patton

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