At Dexter Rotary breakfast Duane Newland tells me, “I’ve got an open spot three to five on Saturday.” He stands over me, smiling, clipboard in hand to sign up bell ringers for the Salvation Army Red Kettle, and it’s not fair. Nobody can refuse Duane. He’s just too nice.
“I’ll take it!” I quipped hoping my enthusiasm matched Duane’s smile.
Duane wrote my name down, upon which Paul Cousins, seeing it written in ink, announced, “It’s supposed to pour.” I gave my name a last wistful glance as Duane moved onto the next table of soon-to-be volunteers. What’s that Rotary’s motto again? Service above self?
I have never rung a bell for the Salvation Army. Unsure of the rigors, I decided to dress for the weather in full-on backcountry gear. If I could survive a week of chilly rain in Wind River and a wet week of snow in Canada, two hours in a hazy shade of winter outside Busch’s shouldn’t be too much.
I arrived a little before 3:00 to relieve Paul Cousins and Julie Schumaker. It was raining, but not pouring. Julie motioned me to stand under the awning saying, “It’s not so bad if you stand under here.”
I didn’t. I dared the weather to try and get the better of me.
Alison and Faith from Dexter High School’s Interact Club, the high school branch of Rotary, surprised us by also showing up to ring bells. The other Rotarian signed up, Stephanie Evans, showed up in the form of her husband Joe who was filling in for her. Being a little under the weather, she prudently opted out of being in the weather.
I awkwardly took a small bell in my big gloves and started flailing away. My fingers were already cold. I rang harder to warm them up. They got colder. I slowed down to reduce the breeze effect. Soon, my fingers were no longer bothering me because my toes were colder. I pulled my hat down hoping it would help my digits. I glanced at the time; less than 5 minutes. How could Joe not stand to have a hat on?
It was a little strange being on the other side of the kettle. I have walked by them for years, sometimes putting in a little coin, most of the time avoiding eye contact out of fear of being judged for not giving anything.
But here, with dinging scepter in hand, I quickly realized nothing could be further from the truth. It reminded me of that line from the Frosty song, “There must have been some magic in that old silk hat they found…” There must have also been some magic in this red kettle we’re around. Salutations charged with goodwill flowed freely between us and people passing by. Strangers felt like friends, and friends felt like … well, they still felt like friends. Contributing to the kettle almost seemed like an afterthought, an add-on to an already wonderful transaction.
There was a school bus parked in the lot with a banner reading “Stuff the Bus” on it. A few high school guys were handing out flyers to folks coming into Busch’s. Shoppers exiting the store would sometimes hand off a bag of goods to the guys and they would run it out to the bus.
Wanting to know more, I handed my bell to Faith and walked over stiff-legged, trying not to let the frigid nylon fabric of my weather pants touch my legs. It didn’t work, but it did get the attention of the guys watching me approach.
“Restroom’s in there,” said one of them pointing helpfully.
“What? No, no,” I replied a little perplexed. “I write for We Love Dexter and want to hear more about what you’re doing for a possible article.”
One of the guys, Lukas, explained, “The Stuff the Bus event is going on all week long here at Busch’s. Zane, Mackenzie, and myself are running the event with the assistance of the Lion’s Club. This project goes towards our community service requirements as part of the IB Diploma Program at school.”
How the event works is: Shoppers, upon entering Busch’s, are given a list of non-perishable food items that they can purchase and then donate for on their way out if they choose. The collective effort of just one or two items from many shoppers makes a huge impact.
The week-long event goes to keeping the pantry shelves of Faith In Action stocked in Dexter and Chelsea. The holidays put incredible pressure on household budgets and those that are vulnerable often need extra support. The guys took me out to the bus. Inside it looked like it was well on its way to being “stuffed.”
I stepped back outside and the wind cut through me. I reached down to zip up my outer shell only to find it was already zipped. What the heck? The guys, in the hubris of youth, weren’t wearing hats and didn’t seem to notice. The rain had let up and I noticed their hair already looked dry. Oh to be young and immortal.
Back at the kettle the good cheer was as merry as the weather was dreary. I was surprised to see the majority of people dropping something in the bucket, brimming with holiday well-wishes. I’ve got to step up my holiday game.
Alison and Faith, also hatless, chatted away about the things they are involved in at school. I was impressed. Joe and I discussed the finer points of moving Christmas trees and late season yard work. Speech was getting more difficult. My face was stiffening from the cold and my thoughts went to something I recently read about the world’s first face transplant. My gear wasn’t working as well as I expected. How embarrassing it would be to die of exposure, fully dressed in front of Busch’s, while ringing a Salvation Army bell. But on the bright side, a first … maybe a plaque.
Passers-by continued to wish us well and we did the same in return. Generosity flowed in both money and spirit. For a brief moment we had a drive-thru operation going when Kelley Boyes, on her way home from the Winterberry Fair, pulled up and handed us a contribution out her window.
Being a newcomer, the whole thing made a big impression on me. It was a good day for the Salvation Army and Faith In Action, but I couldn’t help thinking the big winner of the day was the community of Dexter itself.
I saw a population, separated and uncoordinated in many ways, galvanized by their own individual generosity. Perhaps through an appreciation for what they have, driven to make things better for someone else. Conduits, not reservoirs, I’d like to think. It’s a warming thought in an oft-times cold and indifferent world.
To my great relief, Joe, Alison, and Faith were finally feeling the cold too. We had a New Year’s-style countdown to the end of our shift and it was over. The hatless guys still had another hour to go, not to mention they started 3 hours before us.
The red kettle and bus were filled, but I couldn’t help feeling I was walking away with even more somehow. That’s how it is with goodwill. There’s a ripple effect.
No doubt Duane will read this article and sign me up again.
Looking forward to it.