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Every year around the holidays, KMUW News introduces us to some of the volunteers making a difference in the community.

Bell Ringer Emphasizes The Joy In Giving

Abigail Wilson

This week, KMUW News is telling the stories of volunteers who donate their time and talent to Sedgwick County organizations and nonprofits. Many people do their volunteer assignments year round--not just at the holidays.

The Salvation Army is serving more people in the United States than ever before. Last year, the Army helped approximately 30 million people. And in order to do that, most of the funds come from one very visible and easily recognized source: bell ringers.

“I'm amazed when I watch people come in and open a coin purse, you know they're digging deep... put a few coins in," says Paul Longhofer. "It's nice to have the big bills too, but I think in many ways the wide range of contributions that we get makes this a community project.”

Longhofer has been ringing bells for the Salvation Army for nearly 25 years. His favorite location to man the red kettle is the Dillon’s on the northwest corner of Douglas and Hillside.

Credit Abigail Wilson / KMUW
Paul Longhofer has been ringing bells for the Salvation Army for 25 years. "There's something in our DNA that says we're designed to serve," he says.

“There's something in our DNA that says we're designed to serve, and I think we live in such a consumer economy," he says. "Every place we look, we see an advertisement for something we have to have, and I wonder what it would do for us if we were told so many times that we need to do something for someone else.”

Longhofer volunteers with other members of Chapel Hill United Methodist Church. He’s sort of the king bell ringer: He organizes who rings when and how long they stay.

“When we send the letter out to all the bell ringers from the church, we put a note in that says, ‘If you sing, go for it. If you have an instrument, bring it. Even if its been in the closet for ten years, bring it and play it,’” Longhofer says.

The goal this year for the Salvation Army in Wichita is to raise $1.8 million for the organization, but recent reports put their current total at about half of that. Longhofer says money raised through the bell ringer program accounts for close to three-fourths of the Salvation Army’s budget for the year. The money is used to provide shelter for the homeless and emergency assistance for responders like the fire department, as well as Christmas presents and holiday meals for more than 9,000 families.

"I think we probably have seen a fairly significant increase over the last five or six years of people in Wichita who are finding it tough to make it," Longhofer says. "I think probably the overall national economy has had that, but it's trailed off.”

He has quite a few stories about people he’s seen get help from the Salvation Army, all of which have had a lasting effect on him.

“I met a young woman here two years ago, and she was standing around," Longhofer says. "And she said ‘Is there anyway…I know the Army helps people, is there any way I could get some help?’

"So I arranged, before we left, to align her with the Army. I said, ‘What are you dealing with right now?’

"And she’d gotten thrown out of her home; she had a baby; and was living over here somewhere with some friend. We managed, before the day was over, to take her and buy clothes for the baby and got clothes for her. And do some shopping in the grocery store to get food for the next week or so. That’s kind of fun to be able to do that.”

Credit Abigail Wilson / KMUW
Eleven-year-old Alli Paulson brings her flute to play while her mom and sister ring the bell and greet shoppers carrying bags of groceries at Dillons.

Longhofer says he enjoy being a bell ringer because he likes people. As a former principal at Wichita East, Wichita North and Truesdell Middle School, he sees a lot of familiar faces in the people carrying gallons of milk and bags of food out of the store. But he acknowledges that the presence of a bell ringer can be a little uncomfortable for shoppers. Some people become intensely interested in the sidewalk as they pass. But that doesn’t faze Longhofer or the bell ringers he brings along from his church.

“It's very, very, very important that nobody ever feel intimidated to give," he says. "You gotta give from joy, not from intimidation or something. So anybody who doesn't feel like they should give money, they really shouldn’t. It ought to be joyful.”

And this bell ringer is doing his part to make sure shoppers, whether they drop a few coins in the kettle or not, are, in fact, joyful.


Follow Abigail Wilson on Twitter @AbigailKMUW.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.