COLUMBIA — Sam Dillion wears three shirts, two pairs of pants and a pair of winter boots as he stands outside of the Walmart on Grindstone Parkway ringing a bell for the Salvation Army.
"It's really cold this year," said Dillion, standing in front of a familiar red Salvation Army kettle, smiling at people as they walked in and out of the store.
Dillion, 54, is one of more than 200 men and women who applied to be a bell ringer this season, a much higher number than last year.
*"Last year, we only took about half of the 75 that applied. This year we took 139," said Maj. K. Kendall Mathews, regional coordinator for the Salvation Army in mid-Missouri.
He pointed to the increase in applications for bell ringers as an indication that the economy is not fully rebounding.
"We're still not out of the woods. There are still needy people, there are still hungry people, there are still homeless people," he said.
Dillion applied to be a bell ringer this year because part-time work was scarce. This is the first year he's applied for the position. He and other bell ringers make $7.25 an hour.
"Lots of people I know can't find work either," he said. After the holiday season is over, he said he will look for part-time work. He uses Labor Ready in Columbia to find temporary jobs. He is staying in a halfway house until work picks up.
Rita Alfred, the coordinator of the bell ringers in Columbia, said the spike in bell ringers means fewer shifts to go around.
"At first it was crazy trying to make sure everyone got a good number of shifts, but so far it's been going pretty well," she said.
Bell ringers either work the 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift or the 3 to 8 p.m. shift. Applicants must go through background checks before they are hired.
Joseph Geraci is ringing a bell for his second year this season. Geraci, 77, said he needed the extra money because his Social Security and retirement checks aren't enough to support him and his daughter. He moved to Columbia from San Jose because he couldn't afford California's cost of living.
"The same house would be $2,200 a month there and $700 a month here," Geraci said. Most of his family is still in San Jose, but he can't afford to visit. This season, he said he's working as many bell-ringing shifts as possible.
Although monetary donations have been lower to date because of the suffering economy, Mathews said he has seen an increase in other types of donations.
"Both of our thrift stores have seen a remarkable increase in the number of items we've taken in," Mathews said. "There's been an increase in volunteerism, too, but there's a plateau in actual cash donations."
Bell ringers will collect money at 25 locations in Columbia until Dec. 24.
"What goes in the kettle is money," Mathews said. "What comes out of the kettle is love and joy, food, shelter and clothing."