Denise Hileman, a volunteer for the Salvation Army, spreads the Christmas spirit Dec. 4, 2012, outside of Wal-Mart on Old Fort Parkway in Murfreesboro, Tenn. (TMP Photo/B. Mailey)
For five hours a day, six days a week, Joseph Grant stands next to the Salvation Army red kettle at the Kroger store on Old Fort Parkway and rings a bell.
When he first signed up for the job, Grant said he didn’t really know what to expect; he’s been pleasantly surprised.
“There’s never a dull moment,” Grant said. “They always giving.”
For more than 100 years, the familiar sound of the Salvation Army bell has ushered in the Christmas holiday season.
And whether they give or don’t give, Rutherford County shoppers agree, hearing the bell instantly makes them think of Christmas.
“I think Christmas and helping others,” Murfreesboro resident Reece Smith said.
“I think Christmas and cold weather,” Scott Oliver said.
“I think they should have them year round,” said Dee Browning, who is a big supporter of the Salvation Army.
In 1989, she and her son moved to Tennessee under dire circumstances. She said the Salvation Army assisted them in numerous ways, allowing Browning to get back on her feet. Now, she rarely passes a red kettle without putting something in the pot.
Locally, money collected in the red kettles comprises nearly 21 percent of the Salvation Army’s yearly budget, which is used to support the organization’s homeless shelter, youth program and social services, such as emergency help with utility bills, food and clothing. In 2011, more than 1,300 Rutherford County adults benefited from these services.
Additionally, this Christmas, red kettle funds and the Salvation Army angel tree program will jointly purchase toys and bicycles for 2,000 Rutherford County kids.
“We’re the best deal in town,” said Monica Seiler, a lieutenant with the Salvation Army.
Yet, despite the public’s positive feelings and the large number of families and individuals helped by the Salvation Army, the bell ringing tradition is not without challenges.
In recent years, bell ringers are no longer welcome at some of the best locations for collecting funds. These locations include Publix, Target and inside the Stones River Mall, which have have adopted an, across the board, no solicitation policy.
While Sears has a corporate policy of allowing stores with a Salvation Army relationship to individually decide whether to continue having bell ringers, a no solicitation policy has been instituted for new stores, Sears spokesperson Chris Brathwaite said.
The issue is that if they allow the Salvation Army to solicit, then other organizations such as scouts troops, church groups and school groups want equal time, explained both Brathwaite and Heather Rose, marketing manager for the Stones River Mall.
“If we do that with them, then we have 20 charities calling the next week,” Rose exsaid, adding individual anchor stores within the mall are allowed to have bellringers.
The public has mixed opinions about the no solicitation policies.
“It’s up to the store what they want to do,” Murfreesboro resident Jeff Kennedy said.
“They should be free to ring that bell wherever they see fit,” Jason Craig said.
In an effort to support the Salvation Army, yet maintain their no solicitation policy, some shopping outlets give corporately to the organization.
The Stones River Mall has provided space for a Salvation Army angel tree and recently donated to the nonprofit through a Facebook contest.
In 2008, Target announced it would donate $1 million to the Salvation Army to revitalize educational facilities across the country.
While Seiler applauds Target’s effort, the Rutherford County facility doesn’t see any of those funds, she said.
Target does support local efforts through the Salvation Army’s back to school initiative.
“They do a great back to school shopping spree,” Seiler said.
This year, Target provided 25 school-age children with $80 worth of school clothes and supplies.
Yet, Seiler said, the local Salvation Army certainly misses the thousands of dollars they used to raise at just one Target store.
This year the Salvation Army has 35 bell ringers at locations across the county. Ringers can be found at every Kroger, the K-Mart in Murfreesboro, Belks at The Avenue Murfreesboro, outside J.C. Penney at Stones River Mall, Old Time Pottery and Hobby Lobby.
The goal is to raise $200,000 by Christmas Eve.
But a shortage of bell ringers may keep them from reaching their goal.
“We still need volunteers,” Seiler said. “It’s a lot of fun to ring the bell.”
In hopes of attracting more volunteers and donations, Seiler is bringing in groups to sing at the kettles and play instruments.
Beacuse of the shortage of volunteers, 95 percent of Salvation Army bell ringers are now paid. All money raised from the kettles goes into the general fund. Of that money, 83 percent goes toward Salvation Army programs. Seventeen percent goes toward fundraising and administrative costs.
Individuals and groups wanting to volunteer can contact Seiler at 615-895-7071.
“The bell is kind of nerve wracking sometimes,” Evonda Richardson said, “but it makes you realize there’s other people in need.”
“I tell my son, when you hear that bell you do the best you can to put something in the pot,” Craig said.