For years, Mary Andres thought about being a Salvation Army "Bell Ringer" at Christmas time.
"You know how you always mean to do something and never get around to it? Well, last year" she said, "we finally did it."
What she and a friend did was join the "army" of volunteers who stand out in the cold, wearing a red apron and ringing a bell, calling on Christmas shoppers to remember the less fortunate at Christmas time.
The Lodi-area Salvation Army has had great success raising money to build its brand new Hope Harbor Family Center on North Sacramento Street. But the bigger building, with bigger utility and maintenance bills, only increased the insatiable need for operating funds. Bell ringers are a cornerstone of feeding and sheltering Lodi's neediest citizens.
Right now the Army is recruiting bell ringers to cover about 1,800 two-hour shifts between now and Christmas Eve. The Army solicits at 15 different locations in Lodi.
Most bell ringers are volunteers, though a few earn minimum wage. All are needed to raise the $68,000 that came in last year, according to Lodi Salvation Army administrator Capt. Frank Severs. The money raised now pays for Christmas toys for needy families and the Army's food programs for about half a year, he said.
Lodi's effort is just part of a worldwide and ancient tradition. Methodist minister William Booth started the Salvation Army in London in 1865. Bell ringing to raise funds began over 100 years ago.
Karen West, who coordinates and recruits bell ringers, encourages everyone to give it a try and lots and lots of people do. Churches and other organizations in Lodi are generous with their time.
Employees at Jiffy Lube are taking a stand for a week; M.V. Transport will be at the bus depot downtown; Pacific Coast Producers is sending a contingent; St. Mary's High baseball team will be accumulating community service hours; the Kiwanis and the Christian Motorcycle Association are on board as is a group from Meadows Depot, a program that receives help from the Salvation Army.
Lodi, said Capt. Severs, is the only town he's worked in where churches take whole months, not just weeks, of bell ringing. St. Paul's Lutheran is doing Target from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve and Vinewood Community Church will be at Mervyn's day and night for the whole Christmas season.
Bell ringing entails "don'ts" as well as "dos." Severs said the Army encourages bell ringers to stand unless they are elderly or handicapped. West wants to make sure bell ringers don't bother the businesses where they are allowed to solicit. "Don't ask to use the bathroom too many times," she advises, "and don't ask to use the phone unless its an emergency. We've been kicked out of lots of places - though not many in Lodi."
As a religious organization, the Army imposes some restrictions on itself. "We usually don't do it on Sundays," said West. That is, "we don't pay any employees on Sundays, but after-church volunteers are OK."
"It's a better experience if you have someone with you," said veteran bell ringer Lon Stromnes. "It keeps the focus off you personally and keeps your focus off the people who don't give …"
Mary Andres, who became a bell ringer for the first time last year, and her friend Clara Alberg agree: "It's more fun when you do it with someone."
They are senior citizens and that's why they chose this form of charity.
"It's doing our part of giving back," she said. "We don't have a lot of money to give away, but we can do this."
Andres and Alberg didn't expect they would be receiving a gift in return when they first set up their kettle at Food 4 Less last year. The early evening hours, it seems, are a popular time for migrant farm workers to shop for groceries.
"The guys came off the fields in their work clothes and gave us a dollar or two. The kids were overjoyed when they got to put some money in the pot. We really did well there last year … everyone was so friendly," said Andres. "We learned to say Merry Christmas in Spanish. I think that's one of the reasons they stopped."
She was surprised that even the poorest families would enjoy the experience of giving to the Army.
"Everyone was … glad to have groceries in the cart, I suppose. It made us stop and think.
"That's why we want to go back."
Those wishing to volunteer to be a Salvation Army bell ringer may call Karen West at 570-1447.
Marty Weybret is the publisher of the Lodi News-Sentinel.