Maine weather, changing habits challenge Salvation Army

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PORTLAND — It’s a holiday tradition.

The red buckets, the Santa hats, and the clanging bells.

Every December, the Salvation Army sends its troops out into communities across the country to ring the bells for its Red Kettle Christmas Campaign, which raises money to help provide food, toys and clothing to more than 6 million people.

But it’s a tradition that’s seen better days. The kettles aren’t as full as they have been in the past.

Donations are on par with where they were at this time last year, but lag significantly behind where they historically have been, according to Maj. Steve Ditmar of the Salvation Army of Greater Portland.

Part of the decline, Ditmar said, can be blamed on two significant storms that hit the state in the past few weeks: the snow storm the night before Thanksgiving, which left thousands of people without power, made travel difficult and kept people home on Black Friday, and the ice storm a few days later that again kept people indoors and off the streets.

“Those two storms really hit us hard,” Ditmar said.

Changing spending habits, with people carrying less cash or shopping entirely online, aren’t helping, either.

“We’ve run across people saying I don’t have cash, only plastic,” Ditmar said. “We’re not in a position to take plastic donations, it would be a logistical nightmare.”

Ditmar said the Salvation Army’s response has been to encourage online donations.

“The last three years we’ve seen increases in online donations, that’s indicative towards online commerce, online shopping and the use of cards,” Ditmar said.

The Portland Salvation Army has its own online kettle, which supports programs in only the greater Portland area.

Despite donations being down from years past, the number of volunteers – bell ringers, gift sorters and distributors – has increased.

“That enables us to cover more of our available locations, which then helps us to raise more money and serve more people,” Ditmar said.

Typically, the bell ringers are volunteers like Howie Herodes of the Portland Rotary Club. Despite bitterly cold weather, he and Rotary members Troy Malbon and Roger Asch stood in Monument Square last week, ringing bells and soliciting donations.

Herodes said that despite the cold weather, there was a pretty good response from people passing by.

Ditmar said the Salvation Army has volunteers in Monument Square every day of the work week starting at noon. He said more people typically volunteer on Fridays and Saturdays, while fewer volunteers are available early in the work week. But some ringers are seasonal employees, which insures that there are people out manning the kettles and bells.

With only about a week until Christmas, Ditmar remained optimistic that returns will be better than where they were last year.

“The money we have raised is equal with last year, so we’re maintaining,” he said. “It looks as though we have better momentum, and we’re hoping to be able to exceed last year. The problem is it’s all weather related. We’d be better off this year if we didn’t have the two big storms.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Portland Rotary Club members Howie Herodes, Troy Malbon and Roger Asch volunteer in Portland’s Monument Square on Dec. 8 to ring bells for the Salvation Army’s annual Red Kettle Campaign. 

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Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.