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Ringing in the season: Salvation Army, volunteers, bring joy, raise money for the community

Maria Morales was sick for a few days the week after Thanksgiving, and the customers who go to Stop & Shop in Groton noticed her absence.

“I saw a different lady, and I thought, ‘Where’s that girl with the dancing?’” one woman said to her while rushing into the store on Dec. 6. “I recognized you as soon as I drove by, and I said, ‘I’ve got to say hi’ because you’ve been here a couple of years and I look forward to when I’m seeing you here.”

For five years, Morales, 57, has been dancing and ringing the bell to the tunes on her radio for the annual Salvation Army Kettle Drive. She said she had always wanted to do it, but she didn’t know how until one of her friends got her in touch with Salvation Army officials.

“I wanted to pay it forward,” she said. “The Army has helped me when I was down, they sheltered me and I love them. Capt. Jose (Borrero), Capt. Melissa (Borrero), everybody in the Salvation Army, they’re the best and I will pay it forward until the day I die.”

The kettle drive was started in 1891 in San Francisco by Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee, who was looking for a way to raise money to buy food for a soup kitchen. He drew inspiration from when he was in Liverpool in the United Kingdom, where he saw a pot set out at the boat landing for people to donate to help the poor. McFee put his soup kettle on Oakland’s Market Street to solicit donations, and his idea spread to Boston and New York within a few years and around the world since.

Capt. Jose Borrero of Salvation Army in New London, said bell ringers like Morales are a critical part of the organization. Half of the Salvation Army budget, which funds community programs, family assistance and disaster response, comes from the kettle drive.

“All the money is so critical because it funds all those programs,” he said. Even though the Salvation Army operates globally, about 90 percent of the money raised locally stays local to support the community, he said.

The Willimantic Corps, for example, received a $1,400 donation Dec. 3 in its kettle at the Wal-Mart. As a Salvation Army official was counting the donations, he came across a wad of $100 bills clipped together, according a press release issued by the Southern New England Salvation Army. The Willimantic Corps runs a summer camp for children in addition to maintaining a food pantry and other services.

“I don’t know who put it in,” he said, “but I hope they know how grateful I am.”

This year, the New London Corps is aiming to raise $145,000 for programs in southern New London County. About 40 people are stationed at stores from Clinton to North Stonington to ring the bells and encourage shoppers to drop change in the kettles. Some local organizations volunteer for two-hour shifts, and some individuals are hired full-time for six weeks. Borrero said some of the people hired have recently gotten into transitional housing after being homeless, and manning a kettle helps the community and gives them experience for other jobs.

Emma Douglas of New London rings the bell in front of the Waterford Stop & Shop, where she worked before retiring in 2003. She and George Holmes of Waterford have been at the store for three years together; she rings the bell while Holmes plays the drums. They greeted customers, many by their first names, and chatted with them about their day as festive music played on a speaker that Holmes brought with him.

Douglas, 78, said she first went to the Salvation Army with a friend when she was low on food and has been helping ever since.

“I get to meet so many nice people. Everyone has a different story, and I love it all. I look forward to next year,” she said. People often ask for her or Holmes when one of them isn’t there.

Holmes, 72, said he enjoys making music with Douglas during the kettle drive because it makes people feel better. Customers have come from other stores in the area to listen to them play.

“Some people, they’re hurting. Some people are smiling. When I don’t see them smile, Emma and I kind of work on them,” he said. “It’s just a great thing. This is the time that people need people.”

Running the drive makes the bell ringers themselves feel good, too. Morales, who has been legally blind since 2014 and dances with her bell to music for therapy, said it warms her heart to help others and see customers happy.

“They greet me nicely,” she said, “and the kids, oh, I love the kids. I would take all of them home with me.”

Bell ringers for the Salvation Army are at various locations around New London County, including Stop & Shop, Wal-Mart, Walgreens and the Crystal Mall, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. until Dec. 24. For more information about volunteering, contact Capt. Jose Borrero at (860) 443-6409 or jose.borrero@use.salvationarmy.org..

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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