For more than a decade, Matt and Laura Gordon have tended to the cherry red kettle in bustling Winchester Center. It was just them at first and their two young children, Sam and Lily, ringing the signature golden bell of the Salvation Army amid the yearly rush of holiday shoppers.
They’ve had another child since, 10-year-old Hannah, and lived through the outset of a deadly pandemic. Through it all, they’ve returned here each year.
“Growing up, my mom was always really involved with the Salvation Army,” Laura Gordon said. “We come back every year because we know the good it does for our community, and it’s a good lesson for our kids about how little it takes to give back. We see it as invaluable.”
But families like the Gordons are in increasingly short supply at the Salvation Army, a national faith-based humanitarian organization with a worldwide membership of more than 1.7 million. The volunteer ranks of red kettle bell-ringers — the organization’s top funding source for its social service and food programs — have been slashed by pandemic anxieties and a volatile labor market.
That spells trouble, the nonprofit’s local and state leaders said this week, for the thousands of people in Massachusetts who rely on those programs. What’s more, they say, more people than ever are turning to them for aid, unable to afford rising rents and utility payments or put food on the table.
“The kettles are the Salvation Army’s largest single fundraising event,” said Major Marcus Jugenheimer, general secretary of the organization’s Massachusetts division. “In one community, it might be used for food insecurity, for another, it might be used for rental assistance. When we have fewer volunteers, we’re making less and those effects are felt on the community level.”
The Red Kettle program is at the organization’s heart. Beginning in early or mid-November each year, legions of volunteers set up shop outside of local storefronts, and for each dollar dropped in the kettle, 82 cents goes toward service programs in that community, the organization says.
It was those face-to-face interactions that the pandemic eliminated, and the program took a heavy hit in 2020. The core of their volunteer base, Jugenheimer said, is people 65 and older, many of whom stopped volunteering over fears of the virus.
Now, “in a lot of places they just aren’t coming back,” Jugenheimer said.
Perhaps nowhere is the issue more apparent than in Haverhill, where fundraising in 2020 fell about 90 percent short of the local corp’s annual goal of $70,000.
“The lingering effects of the pandemic have come into 2021 and just about devastated our volunteer operation here,” said Major Walter Rivers, commanding officer of the Salvation Army’s Haverhill Corps. “When you lose that much, it takes a leg out of the chair that we can’t get back.”
Signs of recovering their Red Kettle volunteers, who in Haverhill raised between 25 and 30 percent of the corp’s annual funds, are few.
Only three people so far have chosen to ring the bell this year, about two dozen short of the number Rivers estimates the group needs to cover each of their six storefronts regularly.
His group is facing hard decisions now. They were forced to pause a program aiding students who have struggled with the criminal justice system. And the money the group is losing from shifts they can’t fill at storefronts is money that doesn’t go toward aiding people grappling with housing insecurity, which Rivers said is Haverhill’s harshest consequence of the pandemic.
“That lack of funding creates a ripple effect,” Rivers said. “If we’re losing all of that money during Christmas time, that’s people whose rent we can’t help with. Or whose heat bill we can’t help with.”
The problem, Jugenheimer said, is far more complex than fears of virus transmission alone. He said some people who used to volunteer don’t have the time anymore because of pandemic-induced job insecurity and the rising cost of everyday goods. On top of that, traffic in retail stores is down, fewer people are carrying cash, and some stores have shifted away from bell ringers entirely, citing COVID-19 concerns, he said.
At some local divisions, they’ve even started hiring employees as bell-ringers, he said, but they’ve sometimes struggled to find people willing to do the work.
In the state division’s volunteer service unit — which provides aid in smaller communities through a network of unpaid volunteers and generates around 25 percent of the kettle programs fundraising — the damage this year is already considerable.
One of the unit’s senior service representatives, Michael Skoog, says he’s already lost coordinators in six of the 25 communities he oversees between Franklin, Gloucester, Upton, Hopkinton, and Gardner. If a community doesn’t have a coordinator, there will be no bell-ringing there, he said.
“It’s going to create a gap in my area’s income of probably somewhere between [$85,000] and $90,000,” Skoog said. “I’m trying to overcome that with requests to other companies to support the efforts where we have, but we’re being hit from all sides because of the demand for assistance as well as now the hesitancy of people to volunteer like they have in the past.”
Throughout the pandemic, Skoog said, food insecurity has become the top concern for people his group serves.
Just over 12 percent of households statewide reported being food insecure in August — down from 17.6 percent last December but up from the pre-pandemic level of 8.2 percent, according to Project Bread.
Look to Chelsea, Salvation Army officials say. At the group’s makeshift food pantry there, which sits beneath a few 30-by-15 foot tents, the line wraps around the block throughout the week. Each day, they serve meals to about 800 families, said Captain Isael Gonzalez, commanding officer of the Chelsea division, which also serves people in East Boston, Everett, Revere, Winthrop, and Charlestown. Before the pandemic, they served around 70 families a day.
The Red Kettle program accounts for about 40 percent of the division’s total fundraising.
“We rely heavily on the income we received from the Red Kettle,” Gonzalez said. “It’s very difficult to find volunteers; in fact, we’ve had to start paying some people. Without them, we’re walking a very thin line trying to meet this huge increase in demand we’ve seen.”