Las Vegas Sun

September 2, 2014

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Not as many are answering Salvation Army’s bell

Donations to the Las Vegas Salvation Army kettle drive are down $8,000 from last year. As a result, the organization says it is $15,869 short of meeting this year's goal.

Officials say they fear they will not be able to make up so much ground by Christmas Day to make a success out of the 105-year-old traditional Yuletide fund-raiser, which began locally on Nov. 21.

"We hope things get better as Christmas approaches, but I don't see how we are going to make up the money we are down," local Salvation Army spokesman Sumner Dodge said.

"We really need the money. This year, we housed 25 percent more people in our shelter, including twice as many homeless women and three times as many homeless children. In each of the last four months, 4,000 people sought help through our Family Services. Before that, we never saw 4,000 people in any month."

In an ironic twist of fate, the sharp decrease in donations is being blamed on a healthy economy and quick growth -- two factors that have contributed to Las Vegas' boom.

A strong economy has created more seasonal jobs that pay better than the $5.25 per hour the Salvation Army pays its kettle bell ringers. This reduction in the pool of available workers has left some prime locations without collection kettles, Dodge said.

Because of growth, anti-solicitation ordinances have been passed in recent years in Las Vegas and other big cities outlawing bell ringing in high-traffic areas.

"In 10 to 15 years, bell ringing may not be done by the Salvation Army in many of the larger cities," Dodge said. "Bell ringing is doing well in small towns and medium size cities because many of the businesses still are locally owned and the owners, along with city officials, welcome the kettles in front of the shops."

Dodge said that in addition to donations being down $8,000 from last year at this time, kettle collections last year were down $6,000 from the 1995 totals through the first week in December.

As of last Friday, the Salvation Army had counted $58,131 from its kettles. However, to have remained on track to reach its $206,000 goal, the organization needed to have collected $74,000 by Dec. 5.

The kettles are taking in an average of less than $100 a day -- the organization needs a $135-a-day average to meet its goal -- and 10 bell-ringing positions still have not been filled.

"There are so many more businesses paying better than minimum wage, and the work they offer is not as hard as bell ringing," Dodge said, noting that it is difficult to stand for eight hours and ring a bell in often inclement weather like the valley had last weekend.

Ironically, when times were tougher, like during the recession, people looking for full-time work accepted Salvation Army bell-ringing jobs, as did housewives looking to earn a little extra Christmas money, Dodge noted.

The kettle drive, along with the Christmas mail appeal, corporate appeal and in-kind Angel Tree donations are the organization's biggest Yuletide money-makers. This year, the goal was to raise $800,000 through those efforts. The Salvation Army depends on Christmas donations for the majority of its annual operating capital.

Two years ago, the Salvation Army had to cease its kettle drive operation in the heart of downtown Las Vegas after a city ordinance was passed banning soliciting under the then-new Fremont Street Experience.

Col. Jim Sullivan, who is in charge of the local chapter of the Salvation Army, says this is a sign of the times.

"People want to see the bell ringers and kettles because it has become as much a part of Christmas nostalgia as a turkey dinner and decorated trees -- but times have changed," Sullivan said.

"The city cannot say yes to me and no to another charity, because if it does, you know there will be a lawsuit filed. Also, many big corporations don't want to deal with the liability issues. It has become just too easy for them to say no to us."

If the news about the kettles wasn't bleak enough, the Salvation Army also fears the Angel Tree gift program for needy children may not receive enough toy and clothing donations this month.

"We might not get enough gifts for as many as 2,000 children," Dodge said, noting that 8,500 children are expected to be signed up for the Angel Tree. "Three years ago, 600 of our Angel Tree kids were not adopted, two years ago, 1,200 were not adopted and last year 1,534 were not adopted."

Dodge noted, however, that while the initial project fell short those years, every child who was signed up for the program received Christmas gifts through late appeals to other sources. As late as last Christmas Eve, the Salvation Army was still short on gifts for about 500 children, but got donations in the nick of time.

"I don't know how many more times we can keep making such late appeals without some child eventually not getting a gift," Dodge said. "We have a moral obligation to make sure that each child who is signed up for Angel Tree gets something. So the pressure is really on us.

"As a result, we are seeking more corporate help. We have lined up employees from 11 casinos and 38 other businesses to help get the number of gifts needed."

Angel Tree displays are located in the Boulevard, Meadows and Galleria malls.

The Salvation Army is not the only charitable organization feeling the Yuletide pinch. Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada has launched its annual Christmas drive to support projects like the St. Vincent's Dining Room, Meals on Wheels and its day care center.

"Our annual appeal is even more crucial this year as construction is underway on Catholic Charities Plaza, which will be a new home for our crisis and homeless services, a supportive residential program and a business complex," said Mike Husted, executive director of the organization.

The organization serves more than a half million homeless people in its dining room each year at a cost greater than $120,000. Still, less than a week before Thanksgiving, the organization had to put out an emergency appeal for additional turkeys because, for the first time in many years, not enough had been donated to feed the poor.

Meanwhile, the city of Las Vegas Neighborhood Services Department has allocated $200,000 to the Salvation Army, Catholic Services and the Shade Tree shelters to augment existing services, which includes 1,200 emergency shelter beds for the homeless.

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