When a deadly tornado ripped through Ron Massingill’s hometown of Belvidere, Ill., on April 21, 1967, killing 24 people, he said the first helpers on the scene the next morning were from the Salvation Army.
“I’ve always had great respect for them from that time on,” said Massingill, who was a high school senior at the time.
Now 71 and retired, he’s been paying it forward off and on for 20 years, ringing bells for the Salvation Army’s holiday Red Kettle campaign — including the six years he’s lived in Cedar Rapids. Wednesday, he was stationed outside the Fareway grocery store at 3717 First Ave. SE, his fifth shift ringing at Fareway this season, and he may sign up for more. In years past, he’s also rung the bell outside the Collins Road Hy-Vee.
He’s had good response so far this season.
“People are happy to see people out here ringing, and are very appreciative in most cases, for people volunteering,” he said. In addition to time, he also donates money to the organization.
But Salvation Army captains in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City said donations and volunteers are both down overall this year, which they attribute to tighter household budgets and less foot traffic at the stores where the kettles are placed. All the kettles have QR (quick response) codes and links to online donation options, although Massingill hasn’t seen anyone use those during his shifts.
“We have had the virtual red kettle technology for a few years now,” Cedar Rapids Capt. Shawn DeBaar said. “However, we’ve had to place a higher emphasis and depend greater on them more this year than ever before, due to COVID.”
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The pandemic also has limited the number of people who can physically volunteer at the kettles to just one or two masked people from the same bubble — no musicians, church, civic or school groups this year. The kettles are farther away from store entrances and exits, too, in keeping with physical distancing protocols.
The campaign runs to Dec. 24, with 30 kettles in place in Linn County and 15 kettle stands in Johnson County.
“But we’re really, really short of bell ringers,” Iowa City Capt. Keith Graham said. DeBaar echoed that need.
In-person shifts run for two hours, and people can sign up online. Or they can choose to “join the team” as an online bell ringer to raise funds, or donate directly on local Salvation Army websites.
The Cedar Rapids unit operates with a $1.6 million annual budget. The goal is to raise $711,000 in November and December, with about $200,000 of that coming from the kettle campaign. As of earlier in the week, however, those donations were running $20,000 behind last year’s figures.
Iowa City has a $750,000 operating budget. Of that, its Christmas donation appeals typically raise $150,000, with the kettle campaign bringing in another $100,000. Last year at this time, the kettle campaign had raised about 44 percent of its goal, but this year, it’s closer to 33 percent at this point.
While the donor numbers are down, Graham is seeing larger bills, from $20 to $100, being dropped in the kettles.
“I believe that’s because some people who have it are trying to make up for people who don’t,” he said.
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The pandemic isn’t the only force in the downward turn. The Aug. 10 derecho that wreaked havoc in Eastern Iowa also damaged the Salvation Army buildings in both Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Repair costs will be covered by insurance, but work remains at both sites.
High winds peeled the roof off the gym, as well as insulation and the HVAC system and the wall between the gym and commercial kitchen at the organization’s Cedar Rapids Community Center, 1000 C Ave. NW. DeBaar said about one-third of the repairs have been made, at $180,000, with another $200,000 in work still ahead.
Graham didn’t have a dollar figure to report for damage to the Iowa City Community Center at 1116 Gilbert Ct., but noted that a company that wishes to remain anonymous donated time and resources to fix up part of the building. Other parts still need work.
“The problem now is to find roofers,” Graham said, adding that the building already was in bad shape and the organization was hoping to relocate in the next two or three years.
Both captains are grateful none of the money earmarked for supporting people and programming in Linn and Johnson counties will have to be diverted toward derecho repairs.
“Right now, (the need) is COVID-driven, not derecho-driven,” Graham said.
Requests for rent and housing payments, utilities and meals have gone up in both counties, and the red kettle donations will go toward meeting those costs, as well as toward other emergency responses and social services, free meals and food distribution, clothing, life skills, character-building programs for youths and assistance in getting people back on their feet. The Salvation Army also partnered with the Toys for Tots program in Linn County to gather donations this month at Hawkeye Downs. The Salvation Army also offers worship services.
“We don’t discriminate,” Graham said. “We don’t care who you are, where you come from. Anybody can come for help.”
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