Salvation Army kettle bells ringing two months early, citing 'unprecedented' need
Each Christmas season for 25 years, Craig Johnson has been spreading cheer with music while seeking donations as part of the Salvation Army's battalion of Red Kettle foot soldiers.
This year, The Salvation Army is changing its fundraising strategy to meet what it says is unprecedented need. It kicked off its iconic Red Kettle "Rescue Christmas" campaign Monday, nearly two months earlier than usual.
And for the first time in its 135-year history, the group's campaign primarily will be conducted online, with fewer red kettles and volunteer bell ringers collecting donations in communities.
That's because of an anticipated decline in volunteers and foot traffic at stores, as well as many major retailers closing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"It could be challenging," said Johnson, 73, of Elgin, who plays the trombone with a quartet of brass players, usually in a vestibule at Woodman's Market in Carpentersville.
"A lot of people give because they see something right in front of their face. I don't know how that's going to work out this year."
Though concerned about the coronavirus, Johnson is confident the quartet can play outside while socially distanced. "The music always gets more donations than the bells," he said.
Typically, there are 1,000 red kettle locations throughout the Salvation Army Metropolitan Division, which reaches from Rockford to Northwest Indiana. It's unclear how many collection sites will be set up this year.
Starting in November, Salvation Army bell ringers and kettles will be stationed outside suburban Jewel-Osco stores and elsewhere, Division Commander Lt. Col. Lonneal Richardson said.
This year's fundraising goal is $25 million.
"We have seen in many of our locations throughout the Chicago metro area -- including Aurora and Elgin -- a fivefold increase in individuals requesting emergency and food assistance," Richardson said.
Among them are people who have lost jobs, including essential workers and hospitality and restaurant industry workers, and families seeking food assistance for the first time.
"Families that we would never see ask for assistance from our food pantries are (now) forced to rely on them for their basic needs," Richardson said. "Families who would have in the past donated themselves ... they have become food insecure, as well."
Nearly 70% of donations are generated during the Red Kettle campaign. For the Chicago area, last year's haul was more than $2 million.
Officials now are anticipating a roughly 50% decrease in kettle donations nationwide.
To make giving easier, people will be able use their cellphones to access a touchless point-and-click service on the kettles themselves that directs them to a secure website where they can donate to the campaign.