The Observer

Standing on kettles

Hard times make it a long, cold season for Salvation Army

By Sam Allis
Globe Columnist / December 20, 2009

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The feet go first.

No matter how many times you stamp them, no matter how warm your mukluks are, you just can’t stand on concrete all day without your feet freezing. (And let’s not talk about your back.)

Particularly last Thursday, when the temperature hovered around 15 degrees and the wind gusted north of 30 miles an hour. It was the first day this winter that felt like Reykjavik on a bad day.

And yet there was Carlos Roche, a 42-year-old volunteer for the Salvation Army, ringing the bell for donations in front of the Borders bookstore at School and Washington streets.

I talked to him at about 2 that afternoon. He had been ringing the bell there next to the organization’s signature red kettle since 10 that morning and was planning to stay until 6. He had taken two short breaks when I saw him. I experience frostbite simply thinking about his day.

Roche has been “standing on kettles,’’ the Army in-house phrase for ringing the bells on the streets, daily since the Monday after Thanksgiving. That’s when the outfit kicks off its Christmas program.

Roche works for free. Others, like Leticia Quinonez, who was ringing the bell a couple of blocks south of him on Washington, get paid $8 an hour. I ask Roche why he doesn’t get paid. He says he doesn’t want to be paid.

He had on four layers up top and three below - long johns, jeans, sweatpants - along with a woolen hat, hoodie, good gloves, and unlined construction boots. His feet were problematic. Again, blame the concrete.

Quinonez, 41, lists feet, hands, and ears in that order of appendages that go. She can’t remember if she has four or five layers on, but all that bulk gave her body the shape of the Michelin tire guy. Quinonez came out a little before noon and would be there until 6:30. Unemployed, she lives in town with her sister and is hunting for a job.

Roche was staying at Brooke House, a prerelease facility for prisoners located in the Fenway. He’s coming off three years of hard time, which follows 12 years of the same years ago. He’ll be on his own soon and has been looking for a job. He’s got skills as an auto mechanic, he says, and he’s been a chef. Eventually, he hopes for a job with the Salvation Army.

He’ll be staying with his brother when he leaves Brooke House, on the same tough streets of Dorchester where he grew up. “It’s not nice in my neighborhood,’’ he says.

Let us now praise the men and women who stand on kettles in all weather. They’ve got guts. I confess I never paid much attention to them, and when I did I considered them slightly strange. No more. I give the Army a check every year anyway, but this year, I’m dropping some paper in the kettles, too. I now wave as I pass them and try to remember to say, “Nice job’’ or “Thanks for doing this.’’

The Salvation Army, like many nonprofits doing good work, is hurting this year. Major Stephen Carroll, a 37-year veteran who’s over in the wilds of Cambridge, tells me donations are down 15 percent from last year at this time, while applications for help have risen 62 percent. (His turf includes Cambridge, Somerville, and a slice of the South End.) Over a quarter of the applicants have never applied before. Most are working people.

The Army does things that stun me. I never knew, for example, that it helps out on mortgages and rent. “Depending on how much someone owes, we contribute some and try to work with different organizations to keep the people where they are,’’ says Carroll.

Major Jim LaBossiere, the Army’s number two man in the state who works closely with Carroll, tells me that donations are down 7.7 percent across the Commonwealth. In the Boston area, they range from a 26 percent drop in Dorchester to a mere 1.4 percent in central Boston.

Also feeling the pinch is the American Red Cross of Massachusetts Bay, which covers 190 cities and towns in the eastern part of the state; its donations are down 19 percent. Its only growth area is a training program for people to become nursing assistants and home aid workers.

The Salvation Army’s annual three-day Christmas Castle extravaganza, full of toys, clothes, and food, ran from Monday through Wednesday last week. On Thursday, they were still helping people who arrived late. Some 3,000 households who had applied for help showed up, says LaBossiere. That translates into a total of about 12,000 people who came through the doors of the old armory building at Arlington and Columbus.

Carroll has been ringing the bell for 18 years. He was at North Station at his usual time, from 6 to 9:15 a.m., Thursday morning. That was arctic time. I tell him at least he wasn’t outside. He replies, “I nearly froze to death this morning.’’

It will be a challenge for him to meet last year’s $150,000 Christmas budget. (About half comes from the kettles, the other half in checks.) “If things don’t change, it’s going to be very difficult to make it up with the kettles,’’ he says.

He will spend more than he takes in, whatever the amount, to cover everyone who needs help. He always does, and he spends it before all of the money is in.

But he says he can’t run a deficit operation. So I ask him, how is that not a deficit operation?

Carroll has a list of people he calls for extra help - the owner of the Sheraton Commander, Cambridge Mayor E. Denise Simmons, the Rotary Clubs, firemen, among others. What happens if they don’t cough up enough?

“I just keep on making calls.’’

Sam Allis can be reached at