A charity effort in Liverpool, England, inspired the Salvation Army’s first red kettle drive in 1891. In Liverpool, passers-by plunked coins in a large iron pot to help the poor. Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee set up a similar one at a ferry landing in San Francisco and collected enough donations to meet his goal of feeding the hungry.

The movement spread. Six years later, enough donations were collected nationwide to feed 150,000 people Christmas dinner. Now, according to the Salvation Army website, the Salvation Army assists more than 4.5 million people during the holiday season. Locally, the 2016 red kettle campaign in Erie raised enough funds to provide food and Christmas gifts for a few hundred families. Between 1,200 and 1,300 children received gifts, thanks to the donations.

For many years, the kettles have been stationed at retail outlets, grocery stores and other organizations, many of them manned by dedicated volunteers who stand sometimes for hours in bitter cold, snow or rain, ringing a bell to encourage giving.

But habits are changing and those changes are taking a toll on the campaign. The six-week red kettle campaign total dropped for the fourth year in a row. As reporter Ron Leonardi detailed, the unofficial 2017 total is $153,000, far short of the stated goal of $185,000. In 2016, the Salvation Army Worship and Service Center of Erie set a goal of $200,000, but collected just $158,000.

There is still hope that mail-in donations will boost the 2017 campaign. But the worrisome decline points to a need for more of us to give and for the Salvation Army to continue to improvise and adapt.

Bernie Myers, Erie Salvation Army business administrator, points to several factors affecting the drive: the weather, a shortage of volunteers and donors’ changing habits, namely fewer people who carry cash.

The Salvation Army has adapted and created mechanisms to enable giving by text and on Facebook. Those smart strategies should be promoted, especially with the growth of online shopping. Fewer people might be dropping money in the kettles during the holiday season because fewer people are passing by them.

The rest of us could do our part by following the lead of the Employee Community Service Fund at GE Transportation. Even with layoffs at the company, the generous service fund delivered a $15,000 windfall to the red kettle drive. That fund boosted the 2016 total with a $10,000 check.

As Rob Celeski, chairman of the GE fund, said in November, the Salvation Army “does great things.” It also does not ask a lot from us — a dollar or some spare change — to share joy and sustenance with the less fortunate. Don’t let this good-hearted tradition diminish.

—Erie Times News

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