By Kelly Nicholaides
for Montclair Local
At the start of the holiday season last weekend, Ernest Walker rings the Salvation Army bell standing next to a red kettle in front of the Acme on Valley Road.
“Bless you and Happy Holidays,” he says as shoppers stop and stuff money in the kettle. The money will be used to help Essex County’s homeless and most vulnerable population.
“There’s something about bells. It’s the sounds you hear like chimes in some religious ceremonies. It’s also a call to action that prompts a response,” Walker says.
The 56-year-old illustrator and writer was on his second day working as a bell ringer for the organization on the blustery Saturday, Nov. 24.
The Salvation Army Montclair Citadel uses 13 volunteers and seasonal workers throughout 18 locations in Essex County, including two in Montclair — raising over $170,000 in the last two years through the red kettle efforts.
Walker said the organization has provided him with meals in the past, and some income now while he’s unemployed. He is working nine-hour shifts to facilitate the Citadel’s ongoing legacy of providing meals, shelter, and other social services to individuals and families.
On his first day at Acme, his red kettle collection was over $300. The fundraising varies greatly from the fundraising he has done for political organizations, environmental groups, and for the physically disabled.
“In those efforts, you have to convince people to donate. This is different. People see the kettle and they know what to do. If they can’t donate, that’s okay. They still get a smile, a greeting and a ‘good morning,’” Walker explains. “You have to engage and connect even just for a second. Sometimes they say ‘I can’t now, but I’ll drop some money in on the way out.’ I say ‘we’re here until Christmas.’ There’s no pressure.”
Some shoppers walking in and out of the supermarket told Walker anecdotes about growing up poor in the 1940s, he says. Sometimes he cracked a joke.
In passing, two young male Acme shoppers made a donation and told Walker that the Salvation Army is their big donation every year. A 30-something female pushing a cart full of groceries told Walker that her husband once donated his van to the Salvation Army.
“I probably rode in it,” Walker responds.
Vehicle donations to the Salvation Army Montclair Citadel can be used for outreach and to drive individuals back and forth to red kettle fundraising locations at supermarkets, drugstores and shopping centers.
The history of Salvation Army bell ringing fundraisers is traced back to December 1891 in San Francisco, said Captain Scott See of the Montclair Citadel.
“Salvation Army Officer Captain [Joseph] McPhee wanted to provide Christmas dinner for 1,000 poor people, but didn’t know way to pay for it. In England, they would go out with a pot of food and sometimes people would throw money in an iron kettle by a dock to help the poor. So he put up a sign, ‘Keep the pot boiling.’ Soon he had enough money. The idea began to spread. By 1897 it was all over the west coast,” See said.
The money raised by the Montclair Citadel funds the feeding program, drop-in shelter, children’s programs and rental assistance throughout Essex County. The Christian organization raised $90,000 last year and approximately $80,000 two years ago. It kicked off the red kettle effort on Nov. 17 and will continue, Monday through Saturday, at 18 locations throughout the county.
Two locations in Montclair include the Acme where Walker works, and the corner of Church Street and South Park in the heart of a shopping district dotted with boutiques and specialty shops, where a volunteer can be found playing a French horn.
According to its web site the Salvation Army Montclair Citadel has been a “beacon of hope” since 1891, providing for the spiritual and physical needs of the community.
From October 2015 to September 2016, it has served over 1,200 hot meals on Thanksgiving Day, provided 5,410 nights of safe, clean, emergency shelter, served over 18,500 hot meals and provided coffee and baked goods each weekday morning, provided 3,224 individuals with Christmas gifts, provided 5,552 individuals in nursing homes with gifts during Easter and Christmas, aided 155 households with utility, rental and mortgage assistance, distributed clothing, personal care, and household items to over 4,500 individuals and families, donated 340 days of summer camp for children, and provided 6,448 days of drop-in center activities and programs.