It appears to be a thankless job — standing in front of a store, endlessly ringing a bell in hopes that someone will drop spare change or folded bills into a red kettle.

But Salvation Army volunteers who stand for hours in the kettle brigade always say “thank you,” “Merry Christmas” or “God bless you” to the passersby, whether they donate or not.

“When I was a little kid, I was always told, ‘Grow up and act your age,'” Tom Thomson said while standing next to the kettle at the Kroger Marketplace in Columbus on a sunny morning this week.

“I knew they were wrong. If I would continue to act childish, it would pay off in the end,” Thomson said, ringing the Salvation Army bell as he smiled at children walking out of the store with their families.

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Thomson is known for giving kids a chance to ring the bell themselves a bit, although some prefer just to look inside to see where the noise is coming from.

Now residing outside of Columbus although still in Bartholomew County, once a year he is more apt to see old friends and neighbors from when he lived in the Everroad Park and Meade Village areas, catching up with them as he rings the bell.

“We get to say ‘Hi’ once a year,” Thomson said. “I’ll be out here three days a week until the day after Christmas.”

Bell ringing began Nov. 11 at 19 locations around Columbus, most in front of busy retail stores and shopping centers where foot traffic is constant and where shoppers are willing to donate spare change as they walk to their cars.

Bell ringer volunteers such as Thomson are sorely needed by the Salvation Army, which has a goal of $117,000 for this year’s kettle campaign, said Salvation Army Envoy Amy Tompkins, who is leading this year’s effort.

Slots remain open to fill an estimated 7,000 hours of bell ringing through Dec. 26, she said.

The organization has raised 15 percent of the $117,000 so far, which means donations will have to pick up substantially — to the tune of $24,000 a week — if the Salvation Army is to reach its goal by the end of kettle season, she said.

All of the money placed into Salvation Army kettles in Bartholomew County stays in the county, used by the relief organization to provide food for people who are struggling to feed their families throughout the year, and to provide each family that receives holiday financial-based assistance with a Christmas dinner and gifts, Tompkins said.

Kettle cash also is used to purchase toys and clothing for individuals who may not have any other way to provide a Christmas for their families.

Filling kettle shifts

Nancy Johnson is coordinating the bell-ringing effort this year, her fourth with the local Salvation Army.

The kettle campaign only has four first-time bell ringers this year, and needs more new volunteers.

The 11 paid bell-ringing positions have been filled, and most of the volunteers who have committed to kettle shifts have two to seven years experience, she said.

Ringers may work a variety of shifts that can range from two hours to as long as all day, if they wish, Johnson said. Some ringers split up the day, working a shift in the morning, returning for few more hours later in the day.

Nancy’s husband, Jim, is volunteering in his second year as a bell ringer at Rural King on National Road.

Having lost a leg to amputation 13 years ago, Johnson uses a wheelchair as he rings the bell near the store’s Christmas tree display.

Johnson has developed a following — as some of his regular donors move with him as he works shifts at different Salvation Army locations, dropping money into his kettle.

“You get to meet a lot of people, and to me that’s a lot of fun,” Johnson said.

As he was talking, a Rural King customer stuffed slipped some bills into the kettle, leaning over and saying, “I had my hands full a while ago, but there you go.”

Each donation generates an expression of gratitude.

“I always tell people it was kind of them to donate and to have a Merry Christmas,” Johnson said.

In tune with campaign

Guitarist Michael Brown was encouraging Rural King customers to immerse themselves in some holiday tunes rather than listen to the bell jangling near the kettle.

“I’ve had people tell me there’s a $5 bill as thanks for not ringing the bell, but keep going with the guitar,” Brown said with a laugh.

Growing up around gospel and Christmas music all his life, Brown loves Christmas and the Salvation Army, especially how it helps people.

Brown has received assistance in the past, and volunteers each year as a way of giving back.

He started out as a paid red kettle volunteer to earn money at Christmas time, but his involvement and that of his family has grown. Wife Julie helps with the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program and the whole family, including Julie, daughter Kandace, 14, and son Malachi, 8, gather to sing with him at some kettle locations.

Brown is into audience participation, including a roster of songs that involve children ringing the bell at strategic times.

If you bring your kids to a kettle where Brown is working, make sure to ask for “The Hat I Got for Christmas is Too Big,” or “Jingle Bells.” Bell participation is needed on both.

Brown believes the Christmas music contributes to donors’ generosity.

“One year I was at Marsh and it was 17 degrees outside and it started snowing,” he said. “I took a pair of gloves, put them on and started singing a cappella.”

That allowed him to warm his hands without missing a beat of the music.

Brown said it doesn’t feel like Christmas unless he’s doing a little ringing for the Salvation Army.

“It’s not every day you can stand in front of a mainstream store and sing about Christ,” he said. “When I was a kid, I used to imagine what it was like for Mary and Joseph and I like to think children should know the real story.”

Brown feels the Salvation Army is helping him just as much as he is helping them by being a bell ringer, raising money for the less fortunate during the holiday season.

“I hope this just brightens someone’s day and gets them interested in what the Salvation Army is and what salvation is,” he said. “I hope this raises more money for people in need.”

Want to volunteer?

If you are interested in volunteering as a Salvation Army bell ringer, go to and create an account. Shifts are available in two-hour increments or longer.

Updates on kettle campaign progress

For updates on fundraising at the Columbus Salvation Army kettles, visit the organization’s Facebook page at:

Salvation Army kettles in Columbus

Salvation Army bell ringers and kettles are located at the following locations:

  • Walmart locations
  • Sams Club
  • Walgreens locations
  • Circle K locations
  • Hobby Lobby
  • Big Lots
  • Dunham’s Sports
  • FairOaks Mall
  • Kroger Marketplace
  • Rural King
Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at or (812) 379-5631.