2:40 AM / Wednesday June 7, 2023

23 Dec 2021

My Red Kettle story at the Salvation Army

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
December 23, 2021 Category: Local Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Tyree Johnson standing at his Red Kettle working as a ring bell volunteer for the Salvation Army Corp. in Devon, Pennsylvania. (Photo courtesy Tyree Johnson)

By Tyree Johnson

Have I ever eaten a chestnut that was roasted over an open fire?

No, but I have learned every word to that “Christmas Song” made famous by Nat King Cole and composed by Mel Torme’ and Bob Wells.

Since the beginning of December, I have been a Red Kettle bell-ringer volunteer for the Salvation Army’s West Philly Corps, at 55th and Market Street. 

For six days a week until Christmas Eve, I ring a hand bell and sing Christmas carols to attract shoppers who drop money into my Red Kettle. During this effort, nearly a dozen other Red Kettle volunteers will go out to raise a large chunk of the Salvation Army’s annual budget to help needy families around Devon, Pennsylvania and the surrounding counties.

We are led by Major Celestin Nkounkou (noo-koo-ku), and his wife, Major Stefanie Nkounkou, the leaders of the West Philly Salvation Army Corps.

The Red Kettle donations are used to help feed the hungry, secure housing and many other vital services to families and individuals that have fallen through the safety net.                                                                                                                                               The Salvation Army devotes six days a week to the Red Kettle campaign–Sunday is a day of rest and worship for many volunteers. Most of the bell ringing is done in the surrounding suburbs, especially in front of businesses with a lot of foot traffic, like supermarkets, especially Acme Markets.  Joining the campaign is easy — the hard part is staying committed. It was easy for me to join this effort, because I found myself wanting to do something useful during my retirement before I’m called to be with my Lord.

Before I volunteered at the Salvation Army, I found myself wasting time just sitting on my couch watching the women arguing on “The View” and keeping count of how many times Marshall Matt Dillon sent outlaws to Boot Hill on “Gunsmoke”.  So, I picked up the phone and inquired about volunteering for the Salvation Army. I remember as a kid until I was 11-years old, I used to attend the day camp at the Salvation Army near Broad and Brown Street. 

Today as a senior citizen, I joined a team of volunteers who give their time and energy to a worthy cause. Most of the volunteers have been bell ringers for a number of years. A few of them need a wheelchair to get around, some (like me) walk with a cane, and others have survived some hard times. 

These are new people who have come into my life; people like Roxanne, T-Bone, Jimmy and others I’ve gotten to know who make up the bell-ringing crew. Bob “Mr. Bob” Baxter, a retired school teacher, helps us to pass the day with his great humor. Every one of these volunteers just wanted to give back, and working the Red Kettle is their way of doing it. Hey, this bell ringing is not easy to do; consider you are braving a bone-chilling December winter to raise funds for this non-profit organization that not only serves the most needy, but also provides social programs for the youth, women and elderly.

When I first started at the Salvation Army, I was stationed on the Main Line that is occupied by “old money,” “new money” and good credit.

I found the shoppers there tend to be very generous and have the highest respect for the work of the Salvation Army. During most of bell ringing, I observe at least 7 out of 10 people who pass by my Red Kettle to make a donation of a dollar or more – usually, a lot more.

Although I believe most are drawn to the Red Kettle by the clanging of the hand bells, I think my singing has helped a lot. I might sound like a frog, but I think my singing – even off key — adds to the Christmas spirit. I have received many comments and even a few people joined me in a duet.

My co-workers also related tales of donors’ generosity. One volunteer recalled a time when a lady purchased a blanket to keep her warm. Others, including me, had strangers provide food and hot drinks to ensure our comfort and safety. 

Truly it is difficult not get into the spirit of Christmas while tending to the Red Kettle celebrating the birth of Christ, the Holy Child of God. But, let me tell you, bell ringing is hard work, especially on my body that has survived 77 rotations round the face of the Earth.

On many days, the hours in the cold and inclement weather seem to drag. 

I arrive at my spot around 11 AM. What seems like three hours had passed, my watch says it’s only 12 noon. Some bone-chilling hours later, my watch shows it’s only 3PM. With only five minutes left before my tour ends at 5 PM, I think my watch is broke. 

Finally, Major Nkounkou shows up to take me home where a hot meal and a warm bed await.

Then at 9 in the next morning, it starts all over again.

Red Kettle volunteers had been doing this since the 2021 campaign started in early November. Yet, through it all, I have lasting, fond memories of being a Red Kettle bell ringer. Ringing my bell and singing carols, gives me time to reminisce about some past Christmases. 

I had a flashback of my mother presenting me with my trusty American Flyer wagon and a Lionel train set (The Silver Bullet) that roared around the six-foot tall, skinny Christmas tree.

I remembered as a father the glow in my children’s eyes as my late wife Barbara and I watched the children anxiously rise early from their beds, seeing their eyes widening in awe at the brightly lit pine tree standing in the living room corner; their jaws dropping at the sight of the presents under the tree. These scenes are forever etched in my soul.

I’m filled with emotion and I try to force a tear back from dropping from my eye.

This is the Christmas spirit. Because of the Salvation Army, many families will enjoy the same Christmas spirit on this Christmas Day. Toys and gifts will bring many smiles to children’s faces. 

And now, I leave you with the parting words from the “Christmas Song”:

“And so I’m offering this simple phrase. To kids from one to 92. Although it’s been said many times, many ways…Merry Christmas To You.”

  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Leave a Comment

Recent News

Fur Babies Rule!

Five expert tips to help you prioritize your pet’s health

June 2, 2023

Tweet Share Pin Email BPT A healthy pet doesn’t happen by accident. Even a dog or cat...

Philly NAACP

NAACP Philadelphia branch update

June 3, 2023

Tweet Share Pin Email Tweet Share Pin Email Related Posts AACP Philadelphia Branch Update NAACP Philadelphia Branch...


After sailing though House on bipartisan vote, Biden-McCarthy debt ceiling deal now goes to Senate

June 3, 2023

Tweet Share Pin Email ABOVE PHOTO: House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., joined by fellow Democrats, speaks...

Suburban News

Delaware County holds Second Annual Juneteenth Celebration on June 19 in Rose Tree Park

June 3, 2023

Tweet Share Pin Email Delaware County will hold is second annual Juneteenth Celebration on Monday, June 19...


Guest Commentary:  Expand access to life saving Alzheimer’s drug

June 2, 2023

Tweet Share Pin Email By Rep. Darisha Parker,  (D-198 Dist.) Imagine losing your cognitive ability while your...


A New Prescription

June 6, 2023

Tweet Share Pin Email New 76ers coach Nick Nurse hopes he has the treatment that will get...

The Philadelphia Sunday Sun Staff