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Ringing in the Season

We all see them each holiday season: the hearty souls who brave the elements and the varied temperaments of holiday shoppers to collect donations for the Salvation Army’s annual Red Kettle Campaign.

More than 600 Central New Yorkers volunteered time to the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign last year. But few have logged as many seasons beside the kettle as Joe McCarthy. Through his association with the DeWitt Rotary Club, McCarthy, father of three and grandfather of six, has been a volunteer with the campaign since 1968.

The longtime Manlius resident has had the same post each year: right outside the JC Penney department store in DeWitt’s Shoppingtown Mall. McCarthy served as general manager of the retail mainstay at Shoppingtown for 40 years.

Money collected in the red kettles is used to support the work of the Salvation Army in the Syracuse area. The organization’s 40 programs serve more than 30,000 people each year. Programs include a food pantry; shelter for the homeless; licensed day care for low-income families; outreach and counseling for runaway teens; housing, and parenting and life skills training for teen mothers; senior services; and food and gifts for disadvantaged families during the holidays.

McCarthy is happily retired and able to spend more time with his wife, Betty, and his family, and doing the volunteer work he loves. He spoke to Family Times about why his enthusiasm for the Red Kettle Campaign never wanes and why others—especially teens and families—should join the “army” this holiday season.

Q: What do you enjoy most about volunteering with the Red Kettle Campaign?

A: It’s a lot of fun and it is an easy thing to do. The Salvation Army does a lot of good in the Central New York area. There are many good people coordinating so many different projects and services. (The Red Kettle Campaign) is an easy way to give a little something back to the community. The kettles provide a substantial amount of income to help the Salvation Army fund activities that enable them to continue “Doing the Most Good,” as their national slogan says. It’s amazing to me how many people in this community are willing to share the resources they have. It’s inspiring.

For me, and I think for a lot of the volunteers, the best part is seeing how people respond and the level of generosity people have. Kids are just drawn to the red kettle. You see them walking with their parents, pulling their arms toward it. (Laughs.) They want to see the inside of it and they like tossing coins in to watch them roll along the rim. It’s kind of like a game for them.

Jim Robb, who has coordinated the bell ringers for the DeWitt Rotary Club for 15 years, told me about one little boy who was out Christmas shopping with his father. The boy went up to the kettle and dropped a $5 bill in. The father asked him, “Why’d you do that? $5!” The boy said, “Dad, we spent a lot of money on gifts today. I want to help someone out who can’t shop like we did.”

Q: What attracted you to this particular kind of volunteerism?

A: Well, the bell ringers are kind of symbolic of the Salvation Army and the holiday season. I worked in Manhattan as a young man, and you would always see them. The bell ringers were always kind of (a reassuring presence).

Q: You have been ringing at pretty much the same location for nearly 50 years. What’s more important: a high-profile location or a good pitch?

A: Location is important, and after all these years the Salvation Army knows how to cover the high-traffic areas. But a friendly personality is also important. You smile, make eye contact, greet people in a way that draws their attention to the kettle. And, you know, there really is a technique to ringing the bells (demonstrates a firm, smooth jingle). It’s all in the wrist. I did have (a bell ringer) who actually asked if they could (instead) use a tape of bells ringing!

Q: I understand you’ve helped the campaign in other ways over the years.

A: I’ve been on the advisory board since 1989. I also have done some training of the bell ringers who are actually hired for the holiday season. There are many volunteers, but the Salvation Army has to hire staff for many locations—particularly the outdoor locations. These folks are often recipients of the services the Salvation Army provides. We give them some training and many of them are quite good.

Q: Any advice for parents who are trying to teach their children about the virtues of giving—particularly in light of the trappings of the modern holiday season?

Kids learn from the examples set by their parents. And from what I’ve seen young people are very generous. We have some parents who volunteer to do the bell ringing with their kids. Teen-agers tend to enjoy it and they are pretty good at it! It’s always great to see that.

Q: Have you ever had any really tough days at the kettle? Any hecklers?

A: You know, I can’t think of any problems like that. Nothing stands out in my mind, anyway.

Q: What is the one thing you have learned about people in general from doing this?

A: I think it’s that you can’t judge people. You see people walk by who you think may be able to give something, but you never know about the other ways they give. Then some days your biggest donations come from those who you know are really making a sacrifice.

Q: What has been your biggest donation so far?

People are pretty discreet, so it is hard to know how much they are putting in. But I would say it’s probably $20 or $50. Although some board members put their own donations in the kettle and those checks can be for up to a couple hundred.

Does the Red Kettle Campaign get you more into the holiday spirit?

Oh, I’m always in the spirit. (Laughs.) I just love it.

Families interested in volunteering for the Salvation Army of the Syracuse area can call Lynn Hy, marketing and events manager, at 479-1321 for more information.

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York