When the Salvation Army rolls out its annual holiday red kettle campaign in the city and suburbs Monday, officials say they fear the economic devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic could cut donations in half during a time of unprecedented need.
The virus has also resulted in fewer people signing up as volunteer or paid bell ringers this year because of concerns about potential exposure. Adding to the uncertainty is the escalating number of COVID-19 cases in the area, said Katie Heinz Pfingsten, spokeswoman for the Salvation Army Metropolitan Division.
“We’re seeing as much as a fivefold increase in need, and the kettle donations could be down 50%," Heinz Pfingsten said.
While the Metropolitan Division — which includes sites in Chicago and the suburbs, as well as Rockford and Lake County, Indiana — has around 1,100 kettle sites in a typical year, officials say they could see a reduction in locations this holiday season due to fewer bricks and mortar retail stores. Also, they anticipate a surge of holiday shoppers choosing to make purchases online.
Still, despite fewer bell ringers this holiday season, officials say the need for help is exponentially higher. The organization is currently serving people who, prior to the pandemic, had never asked for assistance.
“Many individuals are seeking help for the first time ... visiting our food pantries and in need of emergency financial assistance to pay rent, utility bills and help make ends meet,” Heinz Pfingsten said.
Officials say pandemic-related job losses are the primary reason behind both an estimated 50% decline in donations, as well as the fivefold increase in requests for assistance the organization is seeing at some of its 28 area community centers.
While there could be fewer bells ringing this year, Heinz Pfingsten said the crew hired for this year’s “Rescue Christmas” campaign will be following strict COVID-19 health and safety guidelines. They will be wearing masks and social distancing 6 feet each time a donor approaches the kettle.
In addition to being sanitized on a regular basis, this year’s kettles will also be equipped with technology to allow for contactless donations via a smartphone.
The “Rescue Christmas” campaign was launched in mid-September — nearly two months earlier than in a typical year — to meet what officials anticipate will be “unprecedented need.”
“The first population hit by the pandemic are also the people that are already struggling,” said longtime bell ringer Carol Jarzyna, 49, a musician, music teacher and mother of two from Chicago.
Jarzyna said she has been helping with the annual red kettle collections for more than a decade, and during normal times, her volunteering is accompanied by Christmas carols she plays on her flute.
“I definitely want to help this year, as the need is greater than ever,” Jarzyna said. “I obviously can’t play the flute when I’m wearing a mask, but I’m going to ask if I can bring a miniature keyboard.”
Starting Monday, the kettles will be out at some Jewel-Osco and Hobby Lobby stores. Later in the month, Mariano’s, Macy’s and Walmart stores are expected to join the effort.
The Salvation Army is also accepting donations at salarmychristmas.org.
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