The national shortage of Salvation Army bell-ringers and red kettle-minders has washed right over LaVerne Schmidt.
She stands in front of Cross Street Market, a 53-year-old grandmother of eight, 112 pounds of cheerful "Merry Christmases" from Armistead Gardens. Her children and her husband told her she wouldn't be able to stand on her feet eight hours a day, six days a week.
But she does it. "Thank you, hon," she says to a woman who made the red kettle clang. "God bless you."
She told her children she was going to try it, at $6.50 an hour. She started in November and, aside from one Monday off, has been there every day except Sundays, 9: 30 in the morning to 5: 30 at night.
"Merry Christmas, dear," she says to another change-dropper. The man says, "Same to you, babe." She smiles.
Several bell-ringers who trained with her have quit -- but not Schmidt, who will be collecting money until 3 p.m. today, Christmas Eve.
"You get tired, your legs hurt, you take breaks to sit down," she says. "But you think to yourself, you're helping people who really need it."
Maj. Michael Reagan, the new Baltimore-area commander of the Salvation Army, wishes there were more LaVerne Schmidts.
His officers planned 50 red-kettle sites in the area but only about 30 have been tended this season, the same shortage as 'D elsewhere in the country.
The kettle tradition began in 1891 in San Francisco, first with uniformed officers, then volunteers of the Salvation Army church, a Protestant denomination. The kettles are still around, but it's harder to find the bell-ringing guardians.
Members of the church often have jobs that make it impossible for them to take off the month of December to volunteer. Some bell-ringers, such as Schmidt, are paid. Tended kettles bring in at least twice as much as the cost of paying the tenders.
Nationally, the Salvation Army receives by far the most money in gifts among charities each year -- $1.1 billion in 1997. In second place was the YMCA of the USA, with $493 million. Officials such as Reagan point to frequent and intensive audits and the fact that 87 percent of all contributions are spent on programs for the needy as contributing to public trust.
If they are paid, kettle-minders aren't paid much, and must be certified to represent the Salvation Army, which is proud of its 118-year history in Baltimore.
"We need people who make a good presentation," said Reagan. "In other cities, clubs take on the responsibility for kettles; there's less of that in Baltimore. I don't know why. We'll have to work on that."
Reagan, 52, and his wife, Maj. Gloria Reagan, 53, coordinator of women's activities, are likely to do just that, judging by action they've taken for two improvements since coming here in summer to succeed Majs. Frank Gordon and Louise Gordon.
This Christmas, the annual Angel Tree Adopt-A-Child program is giving toys to 6,000 needy children of 2,400 families, double the number of children helped last year. Donors or the Salvation Army fulfill wishes listed on paper ornaments on "Angel Trees" in area malls. Families get toys for their children, stockings, a Bible and discount coupons for Giant Food stores.
On Oct. 1, a long-term transitional housing program opened at Booth House on North Calvert Street, the Salvation Army's longtime emergency shelter housing up to 90 women and children for 30 to 60 days. The additional service gives 20 women and children up to a year to have a better chance to get a job, find a home and be on their own.
The Reagans, whose previous assignment was in Tampa, Fla., have been married officers and soldiers in the Salvation Army for three decades. Michael Reagan ran a hospital in Zambia, began homes for destitute children in the Bahamas and in this country, directed the organization's conversion to a new computer system for its southern region.
Once his vehicle hit a land mine in Zambia. As he and an associate escaped from flames in shock, a man came out of the bushes, and comforted them, speaking in his language, Chitonga. "He just thanked us for coming to Zambia. That kind of stuff is so meaningful. You do your work because it needs to be done, but if you also are appreciated, that's nice."
At the Cross Street Market, two men, homeless and jobless, stand nearby to chat with Schmidt, keep her company and shout thanks to givers. Samuel Jones, 47, sleeps in a South Baltimore shelter. Dennis Fuhrer, 38, stays with a friend.
"Merry Christmas, thank you," shouts Fuhrer to a donor. There are a lot of people out of work or homeless around here, Fuhrer says.
Schmidt says some of the unemployed give. "They say they wished they could give more. They know the Army does good. They use the money to pay people's gas bills and keep them from being evicted, [for] clothing, presents for kids."
Her red kettle is locked, so Schmidt has no idea how much money is inside. But at lunch hour 15 or 20 people hear her bell and drop coins into the slot. They don't need to read the sign that holds the famous red shield of the Salvation Army and the words "Sharing Is Caring" and "Need Knows No Season."
There have been a few wise guys. They say to Schmidt, "You people here again?" When they do that, Schmidt tells them she'll be there until Christmas Eve. Then she takes her gold bell, says, "This is for you," and rings it furiously in their ears.
Pub Date: 12/24/98