By Daniel Johnson, Sports Editor
Freddie Britt spends his winter days and nights holding a small brass bell, a few steps away from a holiday icon.
Standing at his familiar post in front of Wal-Mart, Freddie sports a standard issue Salvation Army jacket, cowboy boots and a smile while his bell’s familiar tone reminds patrons Christmas is coming soon – Freddie is a Salvation Army Red Kettle bell ringer and to him, it is more than a holiday tradition.
“A man told me one time, ‘If you enjoy your job it’s not a job,'” said Freddie, who is entering his fifth year as a bell ringer in Abilene. “If you spend all day long smiling and happy, it’s not a job; it’s something you enjoy.”
And though the 50-year-old’s days can last up to 11 hours, he said the Red Kettle is his way to repay the second chance he got years ago.
“I like helping people. I’d rather help people more than anything else in the world,” Freddie said. “There is no feeling better than helping people – that’s the best feeling you can get.”
The Salvation Army is a worldwide, non-profit organization that provides social services and helps the poor and needy throughout the world. And like Freddie, the Salvation Army’s volunteers and employees in Abilene and across the globe participate in the Red Kettle campaign to remind shoppers that Christmas is more than a holiday sale; it is a time to help the world’s needy.
-Working for ‘the Man’-
Long before he ever donned the red Salvation Army jacket, Freddie dealt with homelessness, using drugs and looking for a place to spend the night.
He found a bed at the Salvation Army’s headquarters Abilene at 1756 Butternut and got much more than a warm bed; Freddie found a community where he felt needed and welcomed.
“When somebody comes in here, they don’t look at you like you just robbed a bank,” Freddie said. “They look at you like they want to help you up, and that’s the way they really mean it.
They don’t do this job for the money; they do it for the love of helping each other.”
Now, Freddie, who lives at the Abilene corps shelter, gives back to the community that saved him years ago in whatever way he can. The former truck driver cleans shelter beds early in the
morning, helps with laundry and finds other ways to volunteer, but he said the biggest way is staying at his post, bell in hand and Red Kettle ready.
“I just got tired of driving a truck and went to work for ‘the Man’,” Freddie explained while pointing to the sky. “I had 50 years of goofing off.and now I’ve got 50 years for the Salvation Army.”
And though there are good days and bad days in front of Wal-Mart, Freddie trusts that “the Man’s” plans will come to fruition.
“God’s gonna put in the kettle what he wants in it today, as long as I’m working, he’s gonna put it in there.” Freddie said.
So six days a week Freddie brings a sack lunch, wears a handwritten name tag and serves with a Red Kettle for the Salvation Army.
One hundred and seventeen years from its beginning, Freddie’s Red Kettle and others like it have become a tradition fused with the holiday shopping season.
At 18 locations throughout Abilene and throughout the country and world, Red Kettles and their bell-ringing companions greet holiday shoppers from Nov. 16 to Christmas Eve. And like Salvation Army units across the nation and world, the funds in Abilene go directly to the needy during the holiday season.
“Our big ask is during Christmas,” said Abilene corps business manager John David Alonzo. “It is during this season when you would see the bells because that money we receive in the kettles goes immediately to assist all the families in the community.”
Alonzo said the collected donations buy food, clothes and toys go out to needy families in the Abilene area, but donations have not been as strong as in past years.
“Over the years, unfortunately the amount we have been receiving in the kettles has gone down, and I guess what the consensus is that a lot of people are doing online shopping,” Alonzo said.
Business Week reported that on “Cyber Monday,”- the first day of the online holiday shopping season – more than $700 million was spent online. For the Salvation Army that means less people walking in or out of retail stores and less donations for the needy.
“That’s where it looks like society is headed to much more simple and convenient methods,” Alonzo said.
And in response, the Army unveiled online Red Kettles that people can host and help raise money through the Web. The new digital Kettle is leagues away from the iconic Kettle’s humble beginning in England where Army captain Joseph McFee used a pot to raise money for a Christmas dinner for the area’s poor.
“It’s evolved just as shopping has evolved,” Alonzo said.
But whatever the Salvation Army has in store for the Red Kettle is here to stay, and people like Freddie will greet holiday shoppers with a ring.
“If I’m out there one day and help one family this year, if one person gets one present this year, I feel like I’ve done something,” Freddie said.