The Spirit of Christmas - Salvation Army
Few symbols are as iconic as the red kettle of The Salvation Army. The mere sight of a cheerful volunteer enthusiastically ringing that bell has been known to soften the grinchiest of dispositions and motivate even the most hardened souls to reach into the depths of their pockets for spare change.
What you may not know is that the tradition of the red kettle began back in 1891, when Salvation Army Captain Joseph McGee decided to provide a free Christmas dinner for the poor. To raise the needed funds, he turned to a device he remembered from his days as a sailor in Liverpool, England – a large “Simpson’s Pot” into which passersby would toss charitable donations. McGee placed his kettle at the foot of San Francisco’s Market Street, where ferry passengers couldn’t miss it. The result was a Christmas dinner for those in need and a tradition that has continued unabated for more than a century.
Flash forward to today, when the economic downturn has had the dual effect of forcing many families to limit charitable donations just as more people are turning to non-profits for help. Last year alone, The Salvation Army provided a record number of more than 42 million people with food, shelter, financial aid, disaster relief and other basic social services. Whether it’s serving meals to emergency workers responding to the Washington, D.C. Metro train crash this past June, assisting families who lost everything during a Minnesota tornado, or operating adult day care centers for seniors who need special assistance, their work continues every day of the year.
In this era of scarce resources and great need, those seeking to maximize the local impact of their holiday giving can have confidence in the red kettles. “Part of our success is that the charity is locally driven,” explains Christopher Priest, Territorial Director of Communications for The Salvation Army (Southern Territory). “It all stays local.” Paired with that is the group’s reassurance that funds donated are well-spent. “Eighty-three cents of every dollar raised goes directly to the need, and about 17 cents goes to running and maintaining the programs, which is quite a strong record,” he notes. “We can do that because we have such a well-established infrastructure – we were started in 1865 in London England and in 1880 in the U.S. Our costs are also low. Our full-time officers don’t earn high salaries. The Salvation Army provides them with a place to live, a vehicle as a means of getting around, and a small allowance. So we keep our overhead pretty low.”
For some of the group’s most visible programs – providing emergency relief services here in the United States and around the world – the percentage is even higher. “The good news about our emergency work is that 100 percent of donations received for a specific disaster or “hurricane relief” go straight to serving those needs. Since we already have our regular people in place, there’s no additional cost of running programs, it’s merely additional work for them,” Priest says.
While needs continue all year, the holidays are a critical time for donations. “The majority of the funds are raised from the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve. Most of the money raised is for our Christmas work, which consists of feeding programs – feeding the homeless on Christmas day and food parcels to those who are needy, plus toys for those children who would otherwise go without,” he explains.
To receive Christmas assistance, families much register in the fall. “They have to have identification and if they have a job, at least one pay stub so we can see that they are working. Most of those we help tend to be large families or single parents, and what we provide is the difference between giving the family a good Christmas and them having none at all,” Priest says. To supplement the food items, angel trees were started 27 years ago in Kentucky and have now spread to many areas of the country. The trees are decorated with cards that list a child’s Christmas wish for a toy or game along with a needed article of clothing. People taking the cards return the unwrapped gifts a few weeks before Christmas for processing. Corporate gifts such as bicycles as well as toys purchased through wholesalers with monetary donations supplement the donated toys.
Monetary donations also support shelters and feeding stations, where the need escalates drastically as the temperature falls. Looking ahead to this winter, Priest sums it up like this: “Need does not go away; in fact, it increases. As difficult as it is for people to share, please be conscious of the fact that there are more and more people who need us to get through, particularly at Christmas. To have a family receive gifts that didn’t expect anything and to see the look on the faces of those children is incredible.”
Photo credit: The Salvation Army