As grocery store customers walk out of the Copps on Monona and Broadway, they’re greeted by a bell-ringing veteran.
“Do what I can to help,” 30-year “golden ringer” Ed Burke said.
Burke is decked out in Packers gear, sporting a pin on his green and gold cap, each dangling addition signifying 20 hours of service in a holiday season.
He brings his own brass bell, one he can hear clearly. Burke also has a basket of candy by his side. “Can't do any harm,” Burke said.
Just before his shift, Larry Dobie wore his four-pointed Santa hat, teaching a new generation of bell ringers and collecting as many donations as possible. “You see ones, or fives and tens and occasionally a twenty,” Dobie said.
Both Burke and Dobie have seen the signs of a suffering Salvation Army. This year, the group is down volunteers and donations compared to last year’s early return.
“There are still many evenings I come in and no one's here ringing the bell, which is kind of sad,” Burke said.
Maj. Loren Carter with the Salvation Army of Madison and Dane County says within the first couple of weeks last year, the non-profit collected $143,000 in its Red Kettle Campaign.
This year, there have only been $71,000 in donations. Carter said the cost of helping people is increasing as the contributions go down.
“There is more demand out there than we have the ability to meet,” Carter explained.
Carter said the food pantry is serving 600 to 700 families every month. On top of that, there are 61 families on the wait list for the organization’s shelter.
“I think the demand for services are up,” Cater said. “That's not a good indicator of an improving economy.”
This season, there is the option to scan a code on your smart phone to link up with online donations if people don’t have cash to put in the kettle.
The Salvation Army tried credit card machines a few years ago with little luck.
The group has also considered text donations, but with that method, it’s tough to guarantee donations will stay in the community.
Carter said everything donated to the red kettles goes back to helping Dane County.
The goal is to raise $700,000 with that campaign and a total of $1.4 million throughout the holiday season, including mail-in and online donations.
Carter said that money accounts for about a quarter of what the organization needs to survive and serve every year.
“That does indeed represent a large portion of our budget,” Carter said. “It is very important to us.” Carter said every volunteer hour equals about $50 in resources.
Only about 28 percent of the bell-ringing shifts across Madison and Dane County are accounted for right now.
Carter estimated at least half of the 12,000 slots would have to be filled to meet the financial goal. The Salvation Army has even reached out to about 250 congregations this year asking for help.
Speaking as someone who has done it for three decades and who volunteered for the organization in other capacities, Burke said it’s all about spreading the holiday spirit.
“Think of the people who need the help,” Burke said. “They're pretty desperate, some of them, and whatever we can do to make life a little easier and more enjoyable ... that's what we should be doing.”
To volunteer as a bell ringer, visit the Salvation Army website to sign up for a time and location.
The Salvation Army serving Madison and Dane County also accepts donations online. Donations can also be mailed to 3030 Darbo Dr., Madison, WI, 53714.