Little David Boskofsky of Shoreline is struggling with the two dollar bills his mother handed him. Joyce Horton advises him to fold them so they will slip easily through the slit...

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Little David Boskofsky of Shoreline is struggling with the two dollar bills his mother handed him.

Joyce Horton advises him to fold them so they will slip easily through the slit into a red kettle.

“Happy holidays,” the 4-year-old says, smiling as he walks away.

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Cute kids, friendly retirees, busy shoppers — it’s all in a day’s work for Horton. The 67-year-old looks forward to December all year. For one month, she will have a reason to wake up early and put on her red apron that reads “I’m a bell ringer.”

“I wouldn’t change this job for anything,” she said.

Salvation Army kettle workers are as traditional as eggnog and Santa Claus as a staple of the holiday season. While few people would call it a dream job, bell ringing does help some, like Horton, make extra cash during the holidays.

Each year, thousands of volunteers and paid workers throughout the U.S. bundle up and, with a bell in one hand, hope shoppers will take a few seconds and drop loose change into their kettles.

Salvation Army stats

Bell ringers
More than 20,000 in the U.S.

Thanksgiving Eve through Christmas Eve

Total kettle income (2003)
$93 million

Average kettle

— Blanca Torres

Source: The Salvation Army

“If you’re a people person, you’d love this job,” Horton said.

The tradition started in 1891 in San Francisco when a Salvation Army pastor tried to collect money to help homeless merchant mariners wandering the city’s docks. The pastor set up a kettle with a sign, but it proved ineffective. She then used a church bell to gain attention, and donations came pouring in.

More than 100 years later, the Salvation Army sets up kettles around the world in many of the 109 countries it serves, with about 20,000 kettles in the U.S. alone.

The bell ringers usually set up at supermarkets, malls and other retailers, although some major chains restrict or ban Salvation Army kettle workers and other people seeking donations for nonprofit organizations.

After five years, Horton knows what works: layers of clothes, lots of movement and a rug under her feet — standing on concrete all day can be brutal.

Her spot is in the entrance to Top Food and Drug in Shoreline, at Aurora Avenue North and North 175th Street.

She arrives each morning carrying a red duffel bag in one hand and the kettle in the other. The lock on the kettle clanks as she walks to her stand that says “Need knows no season” on top.

She stands near an arrangement of fresh flowers and rows of Christmas trees. These days, foliage stays fresher outside than in the store’s coolers.

“I’m from Minnesota, so I’m used to this,” Horton says while bending her arms and legs, as she does periodically. The red duffel bag is her survival kit, containing lunch, gloves, extra layers and a bottle of Mountain Dew, Horton’s caffeine kick for the day. Daily exercise keeps her legs strong, so standing for eight hours is easy. Her shift is broken up by a 30 minutes for lunch and two 15-minute breaks.

Horton, wife of a retired letter carrier, stopped working when she had children and didn’t have another job until she became a bell ringer.

“I raised three kids; I worked hard doing that,” she says.

Social Security is her only steady income, so the extra money she makes is a nice boost to her bank account.

“For many people, it’s the only job they do all year,” said Jim Miller, who coordinates kettle workers, including Horton, for the Salvation Army post in Greenwood.

In many areas, The Salvation Army has had trouble attracting people to do the job, either as volunteers or for pay.


Salvation Army bell ringer Joyce Horton watches as Megan Coats drops some coins into the kettle at the entrance of Top Food and Drug in Shoreline. Horton has been active in the Salvation Army as a bell ringer for five years. “I wouldn’t change this job for anything,” she said.

Miller received about 70 applications this year and selected about 40 people, whose pay starts at $7.50 an hour. About one-third are repeat ringers like Horton.

The Salvation Army puts an ad in the Little Nickel, a free, classified ads publication. Many of the workers are low-income or homeless, Miller said, just the type of people the Salvation Army tries to help.

“The man who started Salvation Army, William Booth, he was always adamant about paying a man what he’s worth and keeping his dignity,” Miller said.

Training bell ringers is simple. Workers watch a video showing examples of what not to do: wear earphones, bring a boombox, ignore people; and what to do: dress warmly, smile, say “Thank you” or “Merry Christmas.” Other than that, the job is self-explanatory, Miller said.

Ringers are expected to show up before 9:15 a.m. at a Salvation Army location and are then driven to their ringing locations to start work by 10 a.m. The workers are picked up at 6 p.m.

Miller said he’s had only one problem employee, a dour man he called “Mr. Scrooge.” Miller took him aside, told him to start smiling, and the man’s pot started coming back full.

Kettle season starts the day before Thanksgiving and ends Christmas Eve — 23 workdays total. So far, each of 32 kettles in Miller’s division have been bringing in about $23 an hour.

“The economy is up, people are more generous this year, and that’s good,” Miller said.

Horton has noticed more change clanking in her kettle the past few years.

Her goal is to be gracious to everyone who crosses her path, and that’s a few hundred people each day. Most of her conversations are about the weather and whether or not she’s cold.

“Most people are really nice. I talk with whoever wants to talk.”

She also knows her limits. It’s obvious when people want to avoid eye contact, and she doesn’t want to make anyone feel guilty.

“If people want to give, they can.”

Occasionally, someone walks up and whispers, “I’m an atheist,” but donates anyway. Some ask if ringing makes her tired.

“People say, ‘Get a machine to do that,’ ” Horton said. “I say, ‘Well, what am I here for?’ “

Information from the Chicago Tribune is included in this report.

Blanca Torres: 206-515-5066 or