They are a sight and sound as common to the Christmas season as colorful lights strung on cacti and Bing Crosby crooning “White Christmas.”
Every year, between the day after Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve, the Red Kettle bell ringers appear in front of stores throughout the Valley to collect donations for the Salvation Army.
Each bell ringer stands faithfully by his or her kettle and jingles the small bell nonstop to attract the attention of passers-by, hopefully inspiring them to drop some money into the kettle.
According to Major David Yardley, the Salvation Army Metro Phoenix program coordinator, between 225 to 250 Red Kettles and bell ringer combos are part of this year’s Red Kettle Campaign.
The bell ringers work from anywhere from a couple of hours a day to 40 hours a week, Yardley said.
All of the coins and bills ending up in the colorful kettles add up; as Yardley noted, the goal for the Red Kettle Campaign in the Valley this year is to raise $1.6 million.
“Donations to the Red Kettles comprise 21 percent of gifts to the Salvation Army in the Valley for the entire year, helping assist more than 233,000 people annually through a range of social services,” he said, adding the donations help provide food for the hungry; clothing and shelter for the homeless; senior activity and outreach; adult rehabilitation; disaster and heat relief and opportunities for underprivileged children.
Miguel “El Mambo” DeLeon of Sun City and Jerry Derwin of Buckeye are two devoted West Valley bell ringers with almost two decades of Red Kettle experience between them.
DeLeon can be found ringing the bell at a number of locations throughout Sun City and Surprise, including at Wal-Mart, Costco and Hobby Lobby.
“I first moved here to be with my in-laws about 5 years ago. After I got my wife settled and my in-laws settled, I needed something to do,” DeLeon said.
“I love performing for an audience and I love people, so I decided to go help the Salvation Army by being a bell ringer.”
DeLeon, who is also an entertainer, musician and works as a vendor at a number of sports games throughout the year, dons a festive red, white and green suit with a Christmas tree pattern before heading out to his bell-ringing shifts, which lasts from 5 to 8 hours at a time.
In addition to giving everyone a cheery greeting, DeLeon sings Christmas songs a cappella, which he said definitely helps people take notice.
“Last season the donations filled two buckets a day,” he said.
“I’m a musician with a mambo orchestra and so I know how to work a crowd.”
In addition to enjoying helping to raise money for the Salvation Army, DeLeon said he gets a great deal of satisfaction from seeing how his singing and outgoing demeanor help harried holiday shoppers to relax and be happy.
“When some people walk towards the store, they have no smile on their face and you can tell they have tons of worries and their shoulders are up in their ears,” he said.
“But when they see me in the suit, all of it goes away. I love seeing their shoulders go down and the joy and smiles on peoples’ faces. As long as my schedule allows it, I will ring the bell.”
Across the West Valley, Derwin volunteers as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army Estrella Mountain Corps Community Center in Avondale.
Derwin, a Buckeye resident, has brought in about $30,000 in donations over the past dozen or so years of bell ringing.
“I started feeling like I wanted to give back to the community. I was in the Marine Corps and I have a strong feeling of patriotism, and I feel it’s important to give back to the country and community,” Derwin said.
“So I thought ‘I think I’ll ring the bell at Sam’s Club for a couple of hours a day.’”
On one of those first bell ringing shifts many years ago, Derwin said a woman approached him and explained how the Salvation Army had saved her son.
“She told me he was an alcoholic and how the Salvation Army helped him, so I said ‘Wow, tell me what happened’ and she told me about the rehab center and how he went to a program.”
The woman’s story touched Derwin so much, he knew he had to do more than just a couple of hours of volunteering here and there.
“I was really impressed, so I decided to keep doing it. Since then I’ve heard tons of other similar stories from people.”
Like DeLeon, Derwin likes talking to people and singing Christmas carols as he rings the bell for 8 hours at a time outside of a Wal-Mart or Safeway.
Derwin, who is an Operations Director for a local elementary school, said he has seen first-hand how the Salvation Army has helped students at his school.
“We had some bad storms during the summer, and the Salvation Army was able to help with food boxes for some of the families,” he said.
Derwin said he truly loves his work and feeling like he is doing something tangible to help the community.
“I always make sure to make eye contact and give everyone a sincere greeting. Even if they don’t donate it’s okay; I just want to try to make someone’s day better and I feel a sense of reward at the end of every day.”
Yardley said he is grateful for DeLeon, Derwin and the couple hundred-plus other bell ringers in the Valley.
“The Red Kettle bell ringers are the backbone of the largest fundraising campaign the Salvation Army has each year. Their spirit and commitment help us ‘Fight for Good’ in local communities across the Valley,” he said.