COLUMBIA — Vibrant red kettle pots and the steady ringing of bells outside grocery stores are familiar sights this time of year.
Salvation Army bell ringers stand outside stores in all types of weather, ringing bells and collecting donations. Some volunteer, while others have paid positions.
Dewayne Kemp has been a paid bell ringer for the past four years. He recently had surgery to remove pins from his ankle and dons an orthopedic walking boot, but he hasn’t let that stop him. In fact, he scheduled his surgery around bell-ringing season so he could still participate.
“They just give me a chair to sit in and I’m good,” Kemp said.
During a time when Kemp found himself in need of guidance and a new direction in life, he became a resident of the Salvation Army Harbor House. There, he learned about the power of giving.
“It was the first time that I was really on my own. I was a selfish child. I never knew what it was like to go hungry or not have toys,” Kemp said. “I learned that it’s not all about me.”
Kemp is a bell ringer five days a week from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. He said the cold bothers him, but he’s prepared — he wears five pairs of socks on his healing left foot, three on his right foot, four sweaters, long johns, a wool scarf and a heavy jacket. He also gets help from some Walmart customers, who give him hot chocolate, coffee, hats, scarves and gloves.
“Columbia is a very giving place," Kemp said.
Like Kemp, Frank Kilbourn has been a paid bell ringer for four years. He wears a Santa Claus suit, complete with a Sam’s Club name tag that says "Santa" — a costume he's found gets him more donations. He greets customers as they walk through the doors and thanks everyone who donates, always in character.
“They remember me that way,” Kilbourn said.
Kilbourn first got involved when he saw an ad in the newspaper for bell ringers. But like Kemp, he has a more personal experience with the Salvation Army.
Nineteen years ago, Kemp’s house burned to the ground. He lost everything, including his beloved pit bull, Zen.
“Out of everyone who offered to help me, Salvation Army was the only one who didn’t want to charge me," Kilbourn said.
Now he rings bells five days a week from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“I don’t care if it’s raining, snowing, it don’t matter to me," Kilbourn said. "I’m out here because it’s helping someone. It makes me glow inside to see people donate.”
Kilbourn said that in the past he has been a top ringer, bringing in around $1500 in donations. He attributes his high numbers to his Santa Claus costume and his loud and clear bell rings.
“It’s all in the wrist," Kilbourn said.
Like Kilbourn, first-time bell ringer Amanda Long also came across the position in a newspaper ad.
“It was something different, something I’ve never done before and I wanted to help out with the community,” Long said.
Long greets customers and always thanks them, wishing them happy holidays. She said she tries to start a conversation with customers, regardless of where she’s stationed.
“When I was at JCPenney, a woman brought a change purse full of change and dumped it into my pot," Long said. "She prayed for the change and for me. It made me feel good to know that she was doing her part."
Long said she plans to ring a bell in future years.
Even though all bell ringers are not quite so comfortable in the winter weather, Kemp, in his multiple layers, has not lost his sense of humor despite the below-freezing temperatures.
"Don't have me sitting out here for nothing," Kemp chuckled. "Give!"