For Maria Hernandez, the holiday season is a special time for many reasons, but there is one tradition that makes this time of year even more meaningful for the 94-year-old El Centro resident.
Hernandez is a bell ringer for The Salvation Army—has been for the last ten years.
Every day, Monday through Friday, no matter how warm or cold, she takes her spot in front of her city’s Vons and begins the work that she believes brings hope to all those greeted with the sound of her bell as they pass by.
This year, as pandemic restrictions have eased, Hernandez—along with The Salvation Army’s other bell ringers in the Imperial Valley—are back at locations throughout the county. Last year, only a few storefronts allowed the bell ringers; however, this year, the effort has returned to full operation, which is important to The Salvation Army’s mission of serving the community.
“It means so much to me to see the people in the community and to know that I can do something to help them,” said Hernandez, interviewed on one recent day at her post, wearing her Salvation Army apron, holding the bell, and sitting by the familiar red kettle she hopes each day will be filled with donations to help those in need.
For Majors Saul and Jessica Doria, the husband-and-wife team who run The Salvation Army, El Centro office, which serves the entire Imperial Valley, the bell ringers are an important tradition. They are a very public reminder that The Salvation Army is a part of the community, is here to help, and is providing essential services to thousands in need from the homeless to the elderly—really anyone in need of assistance.
“It’s a Christmas tradition,” said Saul Doria, who has led the local Salvation Army office with his wife since 2019. “It’s a good reminder that we are here, and it gives people a sense of hope to know that we are here.”
The tradition of the bell ringers goes back to 1900, according to The Salvation Army history. Prior to that, in 1891, the first donations were sought through the kettles, but it was in 1900 that a young volunteer with the organization had the idea of using a bell to draw people to the kettles. Since then, the bell and red kettles have become synonymous with The Salvation Army.
In the Imperial Valley, the tradition takes on an even greater meaning considering the needs of the community, Saul and Jessica said.
The money raised through the kettle donations helps support the local office’s daily services, which include providing a hot lunch to those in need Monday through Friday, rental assistance, food distribution in collaboration with other agencies, and utility bill support—along with other services as needed. The Salvation Army, as a faith-based organization, also provides church services for the community.
“We try to meet the person’s need physically, emotionally and spiritually and that is our holistic approach,” said Jessica Doria. “We try to fit our program to the community’s needs.”
In particular, during the pandemic, the Dorias found that getting food to seniors was one of the biggest needs, and they adapted their services to ensure The Salvation Army would work with other nonprofits to support seniors.
“We had to learn to adapt our services to the needs at the moment,” Saul said.
However, to be responsive requires funding, and while much of the funding for the local office comes from the operation of The Salvation Army Thrift Store in El Centro and grant funding—largely from the Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation—the donations gathered by bell ringers continue to be important to the organization.
The bell ringer tradition is not only a benefit in helping the organization raise funds, but the program is also a way of helping those who serve as the bell ringers, many of whom have been clients of The Salvation Army. All the bell ringers serving the organization daily in the Valley are paid for their services, the Dorias said.
There are some agencies and civic groups in the Valley that provide volunteer bell ringers for short periods, but the ones who represent The Salvation Army daily are paid in what Dorias said is a way to help them be independent.
For the bell ringers, they appreciate the support of The Salvation Army, but they also said what means the most to them is to be able to give back to the community, give hope and bring some joy to others during the holidays.
Lisa Sauerberg, 45, of Brawley, has been a bell ringer for eight years, and she couldn’t help but tear up as she talked about serving The Salvation Army.
“It means so much to me,” she said. “First and foremost, I’ve been in a position in my life where my children and I were in need of help, and The Salvation Army was there for me. By the grace of God, we are in a better position now, and I am able to give back and that’s important to me.”
Standing at her post at the Wal-Mart in Brawley, she wished those passing by her, “God bless you.”
“It means so much to me to say God bless you because sometimes people need that,” she said. “I just love being able to share a ‘God bless you’ with them.”
Bell ringing has become a special part of her own Christmas tradition. She recalls when she first started as a bell ringer, and her children were younger, she would bring them after school to her post, and together they would sing Christmas carols. She would use her service to teach her children about the importance of giving to others.
She recalls so many stories she has heard from people who have stopped to talk to her about the help The Salvation Army has provided—stories of the organization helping a family member overcome a drug addiction, and in other cases helping people to keep a roof over their head through the rental support.
Sauerberg said there are people who will come up and drop maybe 50 cents into the kettle and then apologize that it’s not more, but she said any donation is meaningful. “I tell them to give what they can. It’s not the amount, it’s the action.”
Back at the El Centro Vons, Maria Hernandez said serving as a bell ringer is something she wants to continue to do for two main reasons. “I know the help The Salvation Army gives is significant, and my faith guides me to be a part of this.”
The Dorias said they are grateful for the work of the bell ringers.
“During the Christmas season, the bell ringers are the representatives of The Salvation Army,” Saul said. “They are there to give hope, and that’s what people need the most.”