Bells have been ringing on behalf of the Salvation Army outside of numerous East Valley stores, but coordinators for the familiar holiday tradition want their red kettles to rock more than they have in recent years.

In fact, the Salvation Army's national initiative, "Rock the Red Kettle," pertains to the red kettles people freely - or perhaps not so freely - drop their spare change in whenever they see the ringers standing outside doors of businesses such as Walgreens drugstores, Fry's grocery stores, or even Best Buy.

People may not realize this (I know I didn't), but most of the bell ringers are homeless people who need that extra push to help them make money and also help them make the steps toward getting a roof over their head.

And most of the bell ringers in Tempe are paid $8 an hour, making that contingent the highest paid in the Valley, according to Capt. Robyn Bridgeo, who has been with the Salvation Army for the last 10 years and the commanding officer in Tempe for the past three.

However, the homeless who want to ring the bells get priority in doing do because of the Salvation Army's mission to help get people back on their feet.

"If I can get a few people off the streets, that's bigger than anything I'm doing this Christmas season," Bridgeo said.

Although there are a number of volunteers who ring their bells for hours and have done it for many years, Bridgeo - he oversees about 35 bell ringers in Tempe alone, and there are hundreds throughout the Valley - said what they would like to have is more donations as well as more volunteers to generate more revenue from the hustle and bustle of the holidays.

"A lot of people look forward to doing this every year," Bridgeo said. "I don't like to pay overtime, but the bell ringers are awesome. We're trying to engage ‘youth volunteerism.'"

For the most part, Bridgeo said that most of the bell ringers throughout the Valley are 35 and older (not that there's anything wrong with that). But he's thinking about the bell ringers of the future.

Katie Wilkinson, a junior at Tempe's Corona del Sol, was one of the East Valley youths who started a movement this year that Bridgeo hopes will catch on with teens at other high schools:

Wilkinson, 16, started the Red Kettle Club at her high school, a group consisting of students and school staff members who will perform community service projects, such as bell ringing for the Salvation Army or collecting food and clothing drives to benefit other organizations. The club is the first such one in the United States, Bridgeo said.

On Dec. 3, members of the Red Kettle Club rang the bell for the Salvation Army outside of the Fry's grocery store at Ray and Rural roads and raised $1,342, and last Thursday, Katie received the Red Kettle Award from the Salvation Army for her efforts.

"I love how this club has brought the school and community together to help such a wonderful organization," Katie said. "It was so amazing to have our principal, Mr. (Brent) Brown, and assistant principal Mr. (Dan) Nero, participate in our Red Kettle Day. Being the busy people that they are, it was so touching that they were willing to give their time to help our club. All day long the volunteer students and teachers kept telling me how quickly the time was passing by because they were truly enjoying themselves. It was so amazing to see that almost everyone that walked by our kettle was able to reach into their pocket and donate no matter what the amount.

"Not only is the amount of money we raised in ten hours awesome, but also just making the students aware of the many programs that their bell ringing benefited was tremendous," Wilkinson added. "Most of the club members had no idea what the money is used for, and were extremely excited to learn how much their efforts will help others."

Katie also has a personal connection to launching a community service project.

Her grandfather, Bill Miller, was one of the founding members of the Christmas Angel Program, which provides clothes and toys to thousands of needy children throughout the Valley, including more than 2,000 in Tempe alone this year.

And the bell ringers aren't just extraordinary individuals; they've proven quite powerful in groups, too.

On Dec. 13, outside the seven Fry's grocery store locations throughout Tempe, store workers rang the bells and rocked the red kettle to the tune of $2,170, Bridgeo said.

"Every little bit helps", he said.

"We've been pretty steady in the way of donations for about the last three years," Bridgeo added. "Last year, we made $100,000 in Tempe, but spent $30,000 of that to make that amount, so we (netted) $70,000."

And of each dollar collected, Bridgeo was proud to say that 82 cents of it goes to help people with social services needs.


That never would've rang a bell with me.

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