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Ringing a bell at Christmas to help others remember those in need

Ringing a bell at Christmas to help others remember those in need
Delatha Field, 74, rings the Salvation Army bell outside Walmart at 3601 Washington Blvd. She has been a Salvation Army volunteer for 50 years. (Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

There's an icy chill in the air, and a slow drizzle is beginning to fall from slate-gray skies, but at one entrance to the Wal-Mart Super Center in Lansdowne, Delatha Fields is generating a palpable warmth.

Maybe it's the way the great-grandmother makes eye contact with every shopper entering the store. Perhaps it's the sharpness of her uniform or the brightness of her smile.

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But when she rings her silver bell and says "Remember the Salvation Army" and "Remember those less fortunate," Fields usually gets a response.

"God bless," says one man with a nod, scurrying past without making a donation.

"Merry Christmas!" says another as he slips a folded bill into her red kettle.

"It's looking like a good day," Fields says. "Just a couple more and I'll be able to put my feet up."

Fields, 74, is one of about 140 bell ringers who have been plying their trade beside the Salvation Army's trademark red kettles in greater Baltimore since Nov. 14, rain, sleet or shine. But in a charitable organization that can't do without its volunteers, she long ago distinguished herself as a bulwark.

This is her 50th year of volunteering with the Salvation Army of Central Maryland, and colleagues say Fields has epitomized its stated mission — to "preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination."

"She's exemplary of what the Salvation Army means—she's a giving individual who who would just do anything for another person," says Peggy Vick, the regional director of social services for the organization, who has known Fields for 30 years. "I wish I could clone her about 100 times."

Fields, of West Baltimore, has spent 20 of those 50 years as a bell ringer, one of the thousands of apron-clad fundraisers who have stood on corners and in front of stores every holiday season for 123 years, entreating strangers to donate what they can.

The money raised goes toward the organization's many year-round operations, which include running boys' and girls' clubs, providing meals and transitional housing for the homeless and, in Baltimore, supporting efforts to combat human trafficking.

Last year the bell-ringers raised $475,000 locally, says Mallory Maxwell, executive director for marketing in the region. This year, the organization set a goal of half a million dollars for Central Maryland.

It eventually lowered that target figure to $450,000, Maxwell said, in part due to a still-sluggish economy that has made volunteers and donors harder to come by.

For the past few years, the Salvation Army has been paying many of its bell ringers. In Baltimore, more than 90 percent earn about $8 an hour for the job, according to Maj. Gene Hogg, area commander for central Maryland. Fields is among those who rings as a volunteer.

The ringers have been staking out positions at 70 sites in the area, eight hours or more per day, including at the entrances of Giant, Safeway, Shoppers and Macy's stores.

Four days before Christmas, a wind whisks across the Wal-Mart parking lot as shoppers stream past Fields.

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During one 10-minute stretch, no one donates, but she knows better than to panic.

Things always ebb and flow over a course of hours. In the end, she usually ends up amassing the $250 or $300 that spells a decent day.

"Sometimes I think [donors] don't realize that if they even drop in a quarter, it makes a difference," she says. "You don't always realize it while you're standing here, but it adds up."

That's true of the years she has spent with the organization she loves.

Born to a Southern Baptist family in small-town North Carolina, Fields moved to Baltimore at age 8, grew up and got married here, and took a job as with the U.S. Postal Service in 1962.

She'd had little exposure to the Salvation Army, she says, but she lived on Calhoun Street near its Boys and Girls clubs.

Concerned that her oldest child, 6-year-old Clarence Jr., would have something to do to stay off the streets, she looked into the Boys Club's activities for children. There were tutoring, sports, arts and crafts, a Boy Scout-like organization called Adventure Corps, and more.

She enrolled him, and learned the girls' club offered many similar programs.

Her son and four daughters grew up in the clubs, Fields says, an outcome she calls a blessing.

"I had my little headaches with all of them, of course, but I was never with one inside a courtroom," she says with a smile, giving her bell a shake.

Her own life changed when she learned of the Salvation Army church a few blocks away, the West Baltimore Temple Corps at Baltimore and Gilmor streets.

It's designed to look like a lighthouse — fitting, Fields says, for its role in the neighborhood. The church holds Sunday services and adult programs, offers homeless services, runs a summer camp for kids and serves hundreds of free meals every Thanksgiving and Christmas.

She joined in 1965 and became a rock of volunteer work. For 17 years, Fields spent most of her spare time doing "whatever needed to be done"—driving the organization's "FeedMore" trucks (they bring hot meals to the city's poor six nights a week), mentoring in the Sunbeams scouting program for girls or volunteering with the 250 children who attend the annual Salvation Army summer camp in Hedgesville, W.Va.

"Some of them need someone to talk to, being away from home for the first time," Vick says. "Delatha is their loving grandma for a week."

After she retired from the Postal Service in 1992, Fields started picking up the Salvation Army bell, becoming became part of a worldwide tradition.

It was an English minister, William Booth, who gave birth to the Salvation Army in the 1850s by preaching the Gospel in the slums of London, but it wasn't until 1891 that its strong tie to Christmas became part of the public imagination. That was when one officer, Capt. Joseph McFee, decided he wanted to serve holiday meals to the destitute in San Francisco.

Today, the Salvation Army provides services for more than 4 million worldwide every holiday season.

However gratifying the work, bell-ringing can be risky. The weather is often terrible, and ringers generally don't miss a day unless there's a blizzard. This year there have been two reports of thieves making off with kettles elsewhere in the U.S., one in Mississippi, the other in Arizona.

Weather has been pretty mild this year, though, Fields says, and she has never heard of donations being stolen in the area. And people have been generous in 2014—there have even been reports of two $100 bills donated, one in Canton, the other at the Giant store on Wilkens Avenue.

At Wal-Mart, she employs a few insider tricks. She has brought a carpet slab to stand on. She hangs her lunch from a hook on the back of the Salvation Army sign.

She holds her bell at waist level or below (any higher can cause wrist issues) and accosts passers-by in the style she has perfected, making eye contact with each and issuing a friendly but non-intrusive "Remember the Salvation Army."

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One woman stops and slips a bit into the slot.

"It's a very good cause," says Janenenere Hawks, 58, of Baltimore. "It caught my ear when she said, 'Help people who are less fortunate.'"

Another woman, Barbara Anderson of Halethorpe, drops in some coins. Her father, a World War II veteran, always told her how the Salvation Army gave the troops free coffee in the European Theater when other charities charged.

Sherry Moore-Edmond lost her job this month, but she, too, donates and stops to chat.

"I don't have a lot, but what I do have, I like to give, and the Salvation Army is worth it," she says.

"Thank you — it's going to be all right," Fields says as the woman vanishes inside the store.

She isn't supposed to know how much is in the kettle — it's kept locked and is opened only when delivered to headquarters each night — but the years have taught Fields to gauge. She's guessing $400 for the day.

Fields has been working every day except Sundays for more than a month. Asked what she'll do on the holiday, she replies quickly: "Nothing, and thank goodness!"

She gives her bell a few more good rings.

"It's a blessing to help," she says.

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