Ringing the bell gives you a sense of what the season is all about

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Whether you’re like Mason and Charlotte Kussmaul (pictured) and ring the Salvation Army bell with your parents, or like Denise Rod and Rodney “Toby” Howell and plan to ring by yourself, volunteering will touch your heart this holiday season.

By Correne Martin

Two local residents have become familiar faces at the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle bell ringing locations in Prairie du Chien over the past half-dozen years or so. Denise Rod and Rodney “Toby” Howell, both believe in the cause and couldn’t imagine the Christmas season without fulfilling their volunteer time for the organization’s only fundraiser of the year.

Toby started manning the Red Kettle after his retirement just as a way to give back to the community. And he certainly gave his share. In 2018, he rang the bell for a total of 74.5 hours.

“I call and I reserve some time. But a lot of the time, I drive out (to Walmart or Piggly Wiggly) and if no one is doing it, I step in until someone else arrives,” he shared. “It’s nice to meet people, and it’s surprising how many people will thank me for doing it. I feel like it’s just something I gotta do.”

In fact, a woman passing by the kettle when Toby was ringing once brought him dinner from inside the store as a gift of appreciation.

“Another guy gave me a six-pack of beer,” he laughed.

Toby tells those who walk by him “God Bless” often. “It’s nice to see how people react,” he said, “and it’s really remarkable the different kinds of people who donate.”

Though, he said many of the passing shoppers empty their change into the kettle, “which counts up to be quite a bit,” he has had someone contribute a $50 bill in one donation.

“The bucket fills up pretty fast. When I start, it’s empty but when my shift’s up, it’s usually full,” Toby said.

While not everyone donates, Toby says he understands not everyone believes in Christmas or perhaps they choose to give to other charities or simply can’t afford to give their extra money.

“It’s interesting though the amount of people who give when they probably shouldn’t,” he noted.

Denise started volunteering for this Salvation Army effort after losing her job at Wyalusing Academy upon its closure. She wasn’t working and was feeling down when she heard an ad on the radio about signing up to be a bell ringer.

“I’m so glad I did. It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” she stated. “Families come and give whatever they can. One year, it was the coldest year, but people seemed to give more. It just touches my heart.”

Denise outs in multiple shifts each season. She dresses up in layers, stands by the Red Kettle smiling and rings that familiar bell.

For her, it’s extra special because her dad, who served in WWII, always supported and talked highly of the Salvation Army.

“I do this for others, in honor of him,” Denise commented.

For all bell ringers, it’s a humbling experience.

“I look forward to it; it’s not a chore at all,” Denise added. “It makes me feel so good, whether everybody gives or not. I just say ‘thank you very much.’”

To take on a shift by yourself or as a group this holiday season, contact the Salvation Army office at 326-8321 or message the Salvation Army of Crawford County Facebook page.

According to local director Jen Kapinus, 80 percent of her volunteers are return ringers. But if you’ve never done it before, this is your year. Bell ringers are in great need, as are donations. The opportunity to give of your time or your charitable gifts is now through Christmas Eve.

“We’re already a week short on time because Thanksgiving fell later this year,” Kapinus said.

“If you ring the bell, you really find a sense of what the season’s all about,” she explained. “Come, bring the kids, sing Christmas carols and be joyful.”

Funds raised from the Red Kettle campaign in Crawford County will be used directly to benefit those in need throughout the county in 2020. 

For 2019, the Salvation Army has used its Red Kettle funds to assist 14 families with clothing, 30 with food, two with health care, 80 with lodging, 30 with rent, 18 with gas, 65 with utilities and 7 for other needs. 

This is all aside from those families who are sponsored through the organization’s Christmas program. In 2018, 204 kids were provided gifts thanks to local sponsors.

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