2016-12-01 / Front Page

Red Kettle Nation: Volunteers Needed

By Betsy Sherman Walker

Red Kettles are in Newport at the two Stop & Shops, Walmart, A Market, and Charlie's Cupcakes, and in Middletown at Stop & Shop and Shaw's. 
(NTW File Photo) Red Kettles are in Newport at the two Stop & Shops, Walmart, A Market, and Charlie's Cupcakes, and in Middletown at Stop & Shop and Shaw's. (NTW File Photo) One would have to be living under a rock in Newport at Christmastime not to be aware of the Salvation Army’s red kettles. While the Christmas season is seen by many as a celebration of bounty, or a sharing of that bounty, these red buckets are an everyday reminder that for too many on Aquidneck Island, food and holiday cheer remain scarce.

But for Lt. James Bang, chief pastor at the Salvation Army Church and Community Center in Newport, perhaps the most perplexing scarcity is of a valuable commodity that he could not have foreseen.

The Salvation Army is running low on volunteers.

“Traditionally the bell ringers have been volunteers,” Bang explained, “but the number is going down. We are losing them.” This year, the Salvation Army continues to rely on both paid and volunteer ringers to fill up the red kettles, but the number of those who ring for Rhode Island minimum wage is increasing.

The ratio of paid ringers to volunteers, Bang said, is nine to one. And that is one thing he would like to change. His goal: “I would like to adjust it to five to five in three years.”

On the day we met up with Bang, he was a man in a hurry – a busy executive director with mouths to feed, volunteers to organize, and kettles to fill. He had just returned from a trip to Providence and the Rhode Island Food Bank. “These days,” he said at one point, “I drive all day.” It quickly became evident that he is a multi-tasker, a multi-planner, and a man able to keep many goals up in the air at the same time.

He was clearly pleased to have the opportunity to stop briefly and talk about the many services of Salvation Army Newport County, about the red kettles, and volunteerism in particular. In this sea change, Bang sees a trend which, for a committed philanthropist, is problematic.

“My concern is about the volunteers,” he said. “I believe bell ringing is one of the symbols of American volunteerism. I want to revitalize it by [working with] Newport residents who can share with me the value of volunteerism.”

When Christmas rolls around, Bang is in charge of a small army, paid or otherwise, whose job it is to man the kettles. Specifically, the magic number is 300. That is what he says he needs to keep the bell ringers on task and running smoothly, with every kettle manned throughout the day in two-hour shifts. He is quick to add that everyone works hard. “The workers we hire are highly committed to seeing that the Red Kettle program is very successful.”

After the ringers-for-hire are paid, Bang says, the Christmas kettle drive clears about $30,000, 90 percent of which stays in Newport. In 2016, Salvation Army Newport County has served 5,105 people at its food pantry, fed 2,723 at its soup kitchen, and welcomed 15,654 to its bread table (day-old goods donated by local supermarkets). It handed out 53 clothing vouchers, had 504 in its Kids Club, and 18 at its summer camp. Last month, Salvation Army Newport handed out 215 Thanksgiving baskets (feeding 700 people) and currently has 180 families signed up for the Christmas toy and food drive. The bulk of the toys are supplied by a partnership with Walmart, which a number of years ago established a toy collection program at its stores nationwide.

Bang’s wife, Jina, is his “equal partner in all of this.” They work side by side and both hold the rank of lieutenant. The Bangs, who are Korean-born and American-educated, met at the Salvation Army College Seminary. When they were pondering Newport as a place to live and work, they were drawn to the City by the Sea based on what they had researched. But not only for its beauty.

“I thought it was a town of equality,” Bang said.

Two years later, Bang still sees Newport through that lens. In addition to his “5:5” goal of increasing the number of volunteer bell ringers, he has a vision of tapping into what he sees as Newport’s potential. For him, it can – and should – be about more than the money. “That is just a part of the purpose of the Red Kettle campaign,” he said. “It’s more about sharing the joy of the holiday season with smiles and kind words from our bell ringers, either paid or non-paid.”

And that is a wealth he would like to see shared. “I would like to meet more Newport County residents who are willing to share the holiday spirit with others as volunteer bell ringers,” he said, adding that he would “invite them to join my effort to revitalize volunteerism of the Red Kettle."

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