BATTLE GROUND — The Salvation Army’s red kettles and bell ringers have been part of American Christmases since 1891. And Clark County keeps its kettles some of the best-filled in the country.
Vancouver Red Kettle Coordinator Dewey Weber says Clark County is “the top-producing location in the (Salvation Army’s Northwest) Division, and the No. 3 location in (the Army’s Western) Territory, which includes 13 western states.”
Last year Clark County bell ringers raised a record $385 thousand dollars, or 22 percent of the Vancouver Salvation Army’s annual budget. All of the money raised stays local. And Weber says all of it goes directly to needy people, providing rental, medical, and electric bill assistance, funding Toys and Joy, the Army’s Christmas Distribution Center that provides gifts and food baskets for hundreds of local families, and stocking the Salvation Army food pantry throughout the year.
Ninety-six people are ringing bells this year for the Salvation Army at 78 red kettle locations around the county. But there is only one Don Schwartz. Weber calls Schwartz “my number one bell ringer.” And it’s easy to see why.
The rest of the year Schwartz, 71, says he spends a lot of time fishing the Columbia River around Ilwaco. But from Nov. 5 through Christmas, you can find him at the east entrance of the Battle Ground Fred Meyer 10-and-a-half hours a day, six days a week.
Schwartz’s ties to the Salvation Army go way back.
“When I was a kid growing up I had three sisters and four brothers,’’ Schwartz said. “My parents were struggling and having a hard time making ends meet, and out of food and money around the holidays. The Salvation Army helped them. Gave them food boxes and gifts for their children at Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
As a young man, Schwartz enlisted in the United States Army. He tried writing to a woman he knew who was attending Prairie Bible Institute in Alberta, Canada. She wasn’t interested, but suggested that he write a friend of hers at PBI, Goldie.
Goldie, too, had grown up “without anything,” Schwartz says. And the Salvation Army had been there for her family.
The two corresponded for a year. Then they met, and seven days later, they were married. They will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this coming Saturday, Dec. 17.
The couple had three children. Then, in 1987, Schwartz became disabled. And, again, the Salvation Army was there.
“The Salvation Army helped my wife and I a few times when were were struggling. We didn’t take the help if we didn’t need to. We didn’t milk the system or be freeloaders. We very much appreciated the gifts for our children when we were struggling so hard.”
Ten years later, Schwartz began ringing a bell for the Salvation Army. He says he was surprised they would hire him with his disability. But they did.
Schwartz rang first at the old Rite Aid Pharmacy in Orchards. He spent time at various stores for the first four years. Then he spent eight years at the Albertsons formerly located on Padden Parkway, and another eight years at the Walgreens in Salmon Creek.
“And about twenty years later I’m sitting in my wheelchair with my cane still ringing the bell,’’ he said. “It’s been a good journey, a long life.”
The job helps Schwartz provide Christmas for his family, and for others as well.
“I’m able to buy gifts and food, and able to help some others during the holiday season. I can’t thank the Salvation Army, don’t have the words, all they have done for me and my family.”
And it’s been a good year so far. Schwartz says on average his kettle makes $4,500 to $6,000 in a season. This year he’d already taken in around $6,000 by December 5th.
The best part of bell ringing, he says, is “watching people come and go. Little kids, they’re kind of comical. And greeting people. I get to know a lot of people. I don’t know their names. But they ask me, ‘What are you doing here? I thought you worked at . . .’ some other store I used to ring at.”
“I like doing it. It’s like a habit every year. Sometimes I tell my wife this will be the last year. But the Salvation Army has been good to me.” Schwartz smiles. “I ring the bell to help.”
To donate to the Salvation Army Red Kettle Campaign: