Holiday shoppers will likely hear the familiar sound of bells ringing in their ears this holiday season.
But the people who see need firsthand in Routt County hope they will listen to, and not just hear, the bells.
The need echoes louder this year, as area charitable organizations find their resources stretched and few funds to fall back on.
So the ringing will continue until Christmas Eve, in snow and cold, wind and ice, thanks to a group of volunteers committed to bringing some cheer to the lives of those struggling to make it through another year.
People outfitted with a bell, kettle and some warm clothes first hit popular shopping areas in the city about six years ago when the Denver branch of the Salvation Army encouraged the members of its service extension unit in Steamboat Springs to hold their own Christmas Kettle Campaign, Steamboat campaign coordinator Susan Mizen said.
Since then, the storefronts of Wal-Mart and City Market have hosted the bell ringers, who hold no special qualifications, Mizen added, save one: a willingness to assist people they do not know and who may never know their selfless acts of kindness.
"They ring that bell, sometimes for hours, because they want in some small way to brighten the community," she said. "They'll stand by that kettle and never complain."
People easily recognize the sight and sound of bell ringers and warmly respond to their efforts, Mizen said.
Bell ringers collected more than $6,000 last year for LIFT-UP to administer to needy individuals and families this year, but the money has been nearly exhausted, she added.
The money helped about 44 families, or 101 people, with rent and utilities, medical and dental bills and auto repairs this year, she said.
Penny Lucas, LIFT-UP community resource case manager, distributes Salvation Army funds when other funds can't completely cover a request.
"It's a means of last resort," Lucas said. "It fills a void. Without this funding every year, we would not be able to help as many people to the degree that we do."
No more than $200 goes to one family, she added.
Most of the money dropped in the kettles stays in Routt County.
The community benefits from 90 percent of the proceeds with the remaining 10 percent going to the Salvation Army office in Denver, Lucas said.
Steamboat Springs can get its 10 percent back if need depletes Christmas Kettle funds before the year ends, she added.
Volunteers from area organizations, such as Horizons, the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, Discovery Learning Center, Steamboat Springs Ski and Resort Corp., GrandKids and high school students stand by the kettles for a few hours or a whole day, Mizen said.
Volunteers typically ring the bell from 3 to 6 p.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.
Mizen said about 45 individuals rang the bell last year, but no new volunteers have come forward this year.
"People might be worried that it's too late to volunteer, or they might be a little hesitant about standing in the middle of people coming and going, but I say it's never too late to volunteer, and ringing the bill is not a scary thing," she said. "It's very rewarding."
The sight of a volunteer ringing a bell in the cold at the
K-Mart in Craig compelled Joanne Davidson, manager of the gift shop in the Harbor Hotel, to do the same in Steamboat.
"I had been looking for something to do for someone else during the holidays," Davidson said. "Then I saw this person, and thought, 'This is what I want to do.'"
Now in her fourth year of volunteering, Davidson said the cold and wet may occasionally dampen her clothes but never her spirit.
After a few years of ringing a bell in the elements outside City Market and Wal-Mart, Debbie Curd said she has learned how to fight the cold she dances and sings.
"There's a lot of people who say they like my dance because I'm having to hop up and down to stay warm," Curd said. "They say it's worth giving just to see me dance."
When her daughters join Mom on Saturdays, they often sing carols for the passersby, she said.
Curd's husband sometimes keeps her company as well.
"It's definitely a family project," she said.
More people would likely join the Salvation Army's efforts if they knew how to get involved, she said.
"It doesn't occur to them until they see the kettle, and then they think it's too late," Curd said.
Curd, general manager of the Steamboat Springs AT&T Media Services office, saw a flier asking for bell ringers a few years ago and decided to volunteer.
Her time spent in the Central Park Plaza has exposed her to the warmth and generosity of her neighbors, she said.
"It's amazing how friendly and generous the people of Steamboat are," Curd said. "They want to give, and they have smiles for you standing there. They appreciate what you're doing."
Carolyn Peters stood outside Wal-Mart Friday night, welcoming people with a "happy holidays" as they headed for the warmth of the building and waving to people as they left with bags clutched tightly in hand.
She stamped her feet and jingled her bell with a smile.
Bell ringers act like ambassadors of sorts for the Christmas season, she said.
"It's like ushering in the start of the holidays," Peters said. "You pass around the Christmas spirit to everyone you see."
Peters, who works at Colorado Mountain College, began her tradition of ringing the bell on Friday nights at Wal-Mart a few years ago.
She said she has seen her share of harsh winter weather while manning her post. One night was so miserable that Wal-Mart management invited her to stand in the lobby, she said.
People graciously give, whether their gifts are big or small, Peters said, because they understand the importance of sharing with those who have so little.
In between rings and "Happy Holidays," friends, neighbors and even strangers stopped to talk, offer a word of encouragement and sometimes a hug.
"Whether people know me or not, they'll show such kindness," she said. "It's that kindness that keeps this going. It's truly what this season is all about. "
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