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Ringing in the holidays

POULSBO — Enveloped in layers of warm weather wear and huddled beneath a hat and hood, Craig Bennett presents a tough exterior.

“Cold doesn’t have nothing on me. That’s what I keep telling people,” he says. “To me, it’s not even really that cold.”

Bennett, 31, stands outside the doors of Wal-Mart in Poulsbo, cloaked in a red Salvation Army bell ringer smock, black-and-silver bell in hand.

Bennett’s father, Robert Bennett, also mans a local post outside Albertsons in the Poulsbo Village.

“When you don’t have nothing to do, you get cold,” said Robert, 69. “I shiver for two hours after I get off work.”

The Bennetts have joined forces with a longstanding holiday effort to spread holiday cheer and collect funds that provide food, toys and clothing to more than 6 million people during the Christmas season and help more than 34 million Americans recovering from personal disasters nationwide, according to www.ringbells.org.

First started in San Francisco in 1891, the Red Kettle campaign has traditionally been The Salvation Army’s most prominent fundraiser. In 2004, the campaign raised more than $100 million in communities nationwide.

Seattle media director Stacy Howard said assistance needs in Salvation Army’s Northwest division have risen 20 percent; Christmas gift requests are up 30 percent in the area that covers Washington, northern Idaho and northern Montana.

For Craig, a paid Red Kettle bell ringer (some are volunteers), the job is surprisingly fun.

“I wanted to face a new challenge, get to know people around the area,” he said of his decision to join ranks last year. “It’s pretty fun, you get to meet everyone and when people have a grumpy look on their face you say ‘hello’ and smile at ‘em and they smile back.”

At his Olhava station, Craig estimates $300-500 in donations are collected each day, which is better than last year’s count.

“This a very busy store, the parking lot is always full,” he said. “We’re doing better than we did last year at this time. Everyone knows what’s going on and they’re trying to help people.”

Robert’s kettle brings in about $100 each day — he estimated one in every 20 people that enter Albertsons offer up some cash.

Part of the equation, he said, is that more and more shoppers bring only a debit card with them, making it harder to find those carrying extra coinage to part with.

“Every year, less cash,” he said. “There’s still a few people that hold out.”

Robert wears a bright red hat that dances, lights up and plays a tune when turned on. It’s a part of the festive demeanor he keeps up, no matter what.

“No matter how you feel, you have to act like you feel good,” he explained. “If you have a bad day, you can’t let on that you’re having a bad day.”

Roger, also paid for his kettle duties, works six days a week, between eight and nine hours a day.

Craig said spreading seasonal joy tends to make the time go faster.

“Everyone that comes in and comes out, I just try to say ‘hello, Merry Christmas, have a good day,’” he said. He chuckles in the face of cold, but wind, snow and rain are weather patterns of a different color.

Still, stocked with gloves and a pack of hand warmers, Craig, like his dad, keeps his bell ringing.

“There’s a lot of nice people here,” Robert added. “That warms you up too.”

To learn more about the Salvation Army or start an online red kettle, visit www.salvationarmyusa.org.

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