Volunteers in red aprons have been ringing in the holiday season for weeks now in Detroit Lakes, and their friendly smiles are going miles.
With their eye-catching nods and waves to passersby, cheerful calls of "Merry Christmas!" and "God bless you," and that signature "jingle jingle" of those little gold handbells, the volunteers help draw attention to a good cause - the Salvation Army's Red Kettle campaign, a charitable effort that helps local folks in need.
In Detroit Lakes, the campaign has been going on since Nov. 19, with Red Kettles at Walmart, the Washington Square Mall, L&M Fleet Supply and Central Market. It will continue until Christmas Day.
Michele Baker, treasurer of the Becker County Salvation Army and chairman of the local Red Kettle campaign, estimates that nearly 500 volunteers ring the bell in Detroit Lakes every year - and their efforts are crucial to fundraising.
"We do far better when we have volunteers," she said. "When we empty the buckets at the end of the day, if there's not been anybody at the kettle all day, we have very limited funds (in the kettle). But when there is a ringer, we get very full kettles."
The local campaign goal this year is $40,000, 100 percent of which stays in Becker County to help residents who are in times of crisis. As of Thursday morning, Baker said, the campaign had generated about $35,000, and there were still a few days to go to reach that $40,000 goal.
While Red Kettle campaigns are reportedly lagging at many locations across the country, in Detroit Lakes, Baker said, "I think it's just a little down (from where it was last year). Last year we did $42,000. But $35,000 is still great. We're happy with $35,000, for sure."
"I've been doing this for almost 30 years," she added. "Every year, our community is just amazing."
The volunteer list grows every year, too. Baker said new people offer to volunteer every holiday season, and most of them ask to be kept on the list for the following year. While families and individuals are on that list, the majority of Red Kettle volunteers come from local churches, businesses and civic organizations. These groups typically cover a kettle for a whole day, with their members or employees taking turns ringing the bell in one-hour shifts.
Ideally, there's a volunteer at every kettle from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., every day of the campaign, Baker said. That goal isn't always met - the outdoors Walmart location is especially hard to find volunteers for - but the shifts are almost always full at Central Market, which is the busiest Red Kettle site in town and brings in the most donations by far.
It's no coincidence that the kettle with the most bell ringers is also the kettle with the most dollars. As Baker said, "The value of volunteers is huge. Without the ringers, our kettle campaign would really not do a lot at all."
Read on to get to know a little more about just a few of these important volunteers.
Roger and Cleo Johnson
This husband-and-wife bell-ringing pair has been volunteering for the Red Kettle campaign in Detroit Lakes for the past five or six years through their church, Lund Lutheran.
A number of folks from the church had signed up to man the kettle in one-hour shifts at the Washington Square Mall on Saturday, the Johnsons explained, and right around the noon hour it was their turn.
As families flocked into the mall for photos with Santa and shoppers strolled around with bags full of what were most likely Christmas presents, the atmosphere was cheerful. Little kids were brimming with excitement about seeing the 'big guy' and his reindeer (which were out in the mall parking lot), and all the adults seemed to be in the holiday spirit, too.
"It's fun to see all the kids and people coming in," said Cleo. "It's Santa day, so they're all in good moods."
The Johnsons, now in their 80s, are both longtime residents of the Detroit Lakes area. Roger is a retired elementary school band teacher and former locksmith - he was the Johnson of Johnson's Lock & Key.
As Red Kettle volunteers, the couple said they try to ring their bells just loud enough and often enough to get people's attention, without being over the top. It's a gig they both really enjoy.
"It really is heartwarming to see some people who probably don't have enough to meet their own needs, be the first to put money in," said Cleo.
They made sure to wish everyone who dropped coins and dollars into the pot a "Merry Christmas," and blessed them for their generosity.
This Detroit Lakes loan officer had never rang the bell for the Salvation Army before Monday, but by the time his first one-hour shift was wrapping up, he already knew he'd like to do it again next year.
Stationed in the entryway of Central Market with that signature red apron on, Nelson smiled and nodded at the customers filing in and out of the grocery store as they dropped their donations into the bucket.
"It's actually really fun," he said of being a bell ringer. "Even the majority of people who don't give anything take the time to say 'Merry Christmas.' It's a very friendly community, that's for sure."
So friendly that almost everyone who walked by thanked him and blessed him for his volunteer service. All that attention, "almost makes you feel guilty," he said. "Really, I'm not doing that much."
Nelson grew up on a farm north of Detroit Lakes and just moved back to town from Brainerd this past spring, taking a job at First Security Bank. His family still lives on the farm, he said, so he's got loved ones close by, and he's enjoying being back.
Cari Carlson and Sara Nelson
These two coworkers signed up for their volunteer shifts at the mall on Wednesday through their employer, Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership. Mahube-Otwa is a private nonprofit corporation that provides services for low income and elderly people living in the region.
Carlson said she works in the weatherization department, helping to get people's homes heated, insulated and running as efficiently as possible to help save energy and costs, especially in the winter.
She's been at Mahube-Otwa for the past couple of years, and before that worked at Midwest Printing for about a year. A Detroit Lakes graduate, she moved back to the area from Dalton, Minn., just a few years ago and is enjoying being back home.
She said she had a good time ringing the bell for the Red Kettle on Wednesday, a volunteer gig that she had done just once before.
"I like saying 'hi' to people," she said. "They seem to be giving more bills than coins, which I was surprised about."
After her hour was up, it was Nelson's turn. Detroit Lakes born and raised, Nelson has done a lot of bell ringing in town before, both through work and with her family. She and her husband, Aaron, have two kids, ages 13 and 7.
"I enjoy it," she said, adding, "I feel a little spoiled this time, being indoors."
The mall location is the only Red Kettle site in Detroit Lakes that's indoors. Red Kettles at Central Market and L&M Fleet Supply are located in heated entryways, but it can still get cool for volunteers when there are customers going in and out. The Walmart kettle is completely outdoors.
Nelson works in Family Development and Housing at Mahube-Otwa. She's been with the nonprofit for almost 10 years.
Ringing the bell in the entryway at L&M Fleet Supply on Thursday, this Lakeshirts employee got the chance to help a young boy put a dollar into the Red Kettle. It was likely his first time making a donation to the campaign, and he needed help folding the bill to make it fit.
After successfully dropping the bill into the bucket, his mom made sure he told the friendly bell ringer, "Merry Christmas!" as they headed home from shopping.
That kind of interaction is what it's all about for Julie Bommersbach.
"I just think it gives you an opportunity to say 'Merry Christmas' to people when you wouldn't normally," she said of volunteering for the Red Kettle campaign. "I think it's a great cause. It's heartwarming that people donate."
Bommersbach has rung the bell before as a volunteer with the Detroit Lakes Jaycees. This time, she signed up through work. She's been in sales at Lakeshirts for 16 years.
She and and her husband, Mike, moved to Detroit Lakes from their hometown of Wahpeton, N.D. for their jobs and "for the community," Bommersbach said. Mike's a teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School, and the couple has two kids, ages 16 and 13.
This first-time Red Kettle volunteer learned pretty quickly that sometimes the gig takes more than just ringing a bell.
Kolten Adolphsen went above and beyond while manning his kettle at Central Market on Wednesday, as customers walking by sometimes stopped and talked to him about things totally unrelated to the Salvation Army.
It was a busy day at the grocery store, and people had questions as they hurried in and out - "Where's that flyer about...?" or "Is there a sale on...?" It didn't seem to matter that Adolphsen didn't actually work there; he was at the store and he was available.
It kept Adolphsen on his toes, but every time, he was polite and helpful. He even called the Becker County Transit bus for an elderly shopper who asked for his help. Adolphsen had never called the bus service before, and he could have just directed the woman to the store's customer service desk for assistance, but instead he looked up the number on his phone and took care of it. Minutes later, the bus came to take the shopper home.
That kind of customer service comes naturally to Adolphsen, who works as a customer service specialist at Bell Bank. He's been with the bank since February of 2017, when he relocated to Detroit Lakes from his hometown of Alexandria. He recently earned his two-year degree in business management and sales and marketing from Alexandria Tech, he said, and his job at Bell Bank is his first "real" job after college.
Detroit Lakes reminds him a lot of home, he said, with friendly people and "a great community." To get more involved and meet people, he's become a member of the Detroit Lakes Jaycees, and he's joined a local gym. He also works a second job at Seven Sisters Spirits.
Adolphsen signed up to volunteer for the Red Kettle campaign through his job at the bank. He had never rung the bell before, but he said he's sure he'll do it again after his experience this year.
"I like it," he said. "It's doing good. It's a good time of the year to give back, and it's also a good way to get out into the community and help."