One college Christmas break many, many years ago, I rang a bell for the Salvation Army kettle in North Dallas.
It still seems like yesterday.
Unfortunately, the weather those weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas were “typical Texas” – 80 degrees one day, 20 degrees the next. One of those bell ringing days was a bitterly snowy cold day with a blustery north wind but my mitten wrapped hands kept a tight grip on ringing that bell, as my smile greeted all the shoppers rushing past the kettle.
It was both heartbreaking and frustrating to watch well clothed shoppers scurry by me at the front door and do everything they could to avoid the red kettle, or my searching eyes. Occasionally, a few would dig into their pockets and bring out a few coins, but the kettle was light that 20 degree day.
Pretty much no one said a thing to me.
After all, it was cold – their goal was to get in the store, get their shopping done and get home to a nice warm room. I had lots of time to think as they scurried by. It was a heart-changing event.
I found myself more amazed, as the time wore on, at the shopper’s determination to avoid me. I did not stand in the same place but walked around, trying to engage them. But quite frankly, after time, I felt judged. It was if they had determined I was a destitute person looking for a handout they were very determined not to give.
Eventually, I found myself praying for their hearts to be softened, to see the need around them and to realize the opportunity they have to make a little go a long way for someone else.
It was a life-lesson kind of week.
Later that cold afternoon, a bundled up young boy, about 7 years old, came up to the red kettle with an older graying woman, his grandma, and a bulging plastic bag full of coins. His small hands could barely cup the bulging bag and he was only a couple of inches taller than the kettle.
He stopped, looked at me, and then stared at his coins as he stood by the kettle. Sensing the seriousness of the moment, I knelt down to talk to him, cold wind blowing in my face. Head down, he spoke softly and slowly.
“Last year, the only present I got for Christmas was a teddy bear from the Salvation Army.
I live with my grandmom and she didn’t have any money to get me anything.”
Head still down, he smiled. “It was my only present.” [pause] “I love my Teddy,” he quietly said.
He took another breath, head still down.
“So, this year, I saved my money to help somebody else be as happy as I was last year.”
“It’s not much, but I think it will help someone else have a present for Christmas.
Maybe a teddy bear.”
He slowly lifted his head and we looked into one another’s eyes, both brimming with tears. He stood on his tiptoes to see into the top of the kettle, as he carefully dropped each coin in. I can still hear the sound of each of those coins echoing as they hit the inside of the nearly empty kettle.
Quietly, I found the words “thank you” and got a teddy bear sized hug in return. We talked for a while and his grandma was beaming from ear to ear as she told me how he truly had saved his money all year, not spending anything.
He talked incessantly about what other kids might get because he was helping: toy cars, a game, books – the list was long. AND, he talked more about going to the red kettle than going to Santa Claus.
I felt honored.
We were standing in the freezing weather but all I truly felt was a warm heart.
That was the best gift I received that year. I thank him still, even after all these years.
That little boy would be a grown man, now over 43 years old. I think of him every Christmas and pray his heart is still thinking of others, giving what he can give. He may not even know how he changed my life that cold day but I will never ever forget his eyes, nor his heart.
Every year now, I make a run to the bank to get my “kettle money.” I made a commitment that cold day to never pass a kettle without putting something in, not coins but paper. It is an intentional act of giving that cannot be ignored and I always talk to the kettle ringer, thanking them for enduring our ever-changing weather conditions to bring happiness to someone else. It is returned because most of the time when I leave the store, they seek me out, meet my eyes and thank me with a smile.
I am thankful and grateful. I have so much and I could never give enough.
That day, a young man taught me to give from the abundance of my heart, to give all I can, to not hold back.
So, let me ring a bell again, to help this season of giving. I would like to challenge you.
Be prepared. Go get your “kettle money.” Give intentionally. Give another teddy bear to young arms. The next Salvation Army kettle bell ringer you see, stop, look at them, talk to them, thank them for making a difference and put something in.
It is often not the receiver that is blessed the most but the giver themselves.
I have published this story so many times, many Christmas seasons. You see, my heart is still challenged by that young boy.
Let me know how you choose to be the difference this holiday season.
For more information about the history of the Red Kettle or to donate online.