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Volunteers 'ring in' Christmas spirit
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Philip Wenkstern of Martinsville stands next to a Salvation Army red kettle at an entrance to Walmart on a recent evening. He volunteered to help after he read about a shortage of volunteer bell ringers. (Bulletin photo by Paul Collins)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

A smiling volunteer bell ringer who wished he had worn long johns manned a Salvation Army red kettle at an entrance to Walmart on a recent evening.

Occasionally someone going in or out of the store would make a donation.

Philip Wenkstern, 27, of Martinsville, said he tries to have pleasant exchanges with passers-by, unless someone is looking down to avoid eye contact. But he reserves his merry Christmases for donors.

He volunteered to help after he read about a shortage of volunteer bell ringers.

He had time, so he signed up. He earned a master’s degree in public administration in May from James Madison University and has been looking for a job with a small town in Virginia or North Carolina, but not too far from Martinsville, where he grew up. He also has a master’s degree in American history from JMU, he said.

Wenkstern began as a volunteer bell ringer Dec. 10 and did two-hour shifts five days that week. He planned to sign up for a similar schedule this week, too, he said.

On the recent chilly evening, he was wearing jeans, a sweater, a thick jacket, gloves and a thick Santa hat. He said he hoped the hat would help him get more donations.

“My ears are warm. My legs are cold. I wished I had worn long underwear,” he said. “Once in a while, you get a blast of warm air” from the store, he added.

Customers have been nice, saying such things as, “Merry Christmas,” “How are you?” and “I hope you’re not cold,” Wenkstern said.

He had not encountered any scrooges — “no one cursing their existence” or the upcoming flood of relatives for the holidays, he said, smiling.

About the worst comment anyone had said to him was asking how he could stand all that bell ringing, he said.

Don’t laugh. He has ringing in his ears after his shifts are over.

But he said he’s glad to be a bell ringer.

“You feel better after you do it,” he said.

It gets him in the Christmas spirit, helps people in need and helps the community, he said.

Wenkstern was not aware of any unusual donations that were made during his shifts, and he believed the largest donation was $10, he said.

On a recent night, he was at the store entrance farthest from the Christmas trees. Donations were better when he worked at the entrance near the trees, he pointed out.

He also pointed out that some people made more than one donation on the same trip to the store.

This is Wenkstern’s first time as an adult to be a bell ringer. When he was a student at Martinsville High School, he was a bell ringer as part of a club project.

As for other community service, Wenkstern said he and friend Hank Moore recently spent several hours doing volunteer trail work at Gravely Nature Preserve.

While Wenkstern was ringing a bell at Walmart, volunteer bell ringer Lisa Carter was doing the same outside Kroger at Liberty Fair Mall. Lisa, a 15-year-old ninth-grader at Magna Vista High School, was accompanying her sister-in-law, Amanda Bryant of Martinsville, a paid bell ringer.

“I like ringing the bell. I like being out here. I’m helping the needy,” said Lisa, who aspires to be a photographer or a chef.

Dec. 11 was her first day as a volunteer bell ringer, and she did a 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift. The following day, she volunteered from 1 to 7 p.m.

“We talk; we sing; we play Christmas music” and sing Christmas songs, Lisa said. She demonstrated the moves of a little dance she did at times.

“I like the way it makes me feel — good and warm inside — and I like to see the smiles on their faces,” she said of bell ringing.

Some passers-by had wished her a merry Christmas and thanked her for what she was doing, she said.

“One woman put in $15,” said Lisa, adding she was shocked by the large amount.

Two people put in golden dollars, which caught Lisa’s attention.

Last year, when Lisa was a student at Martinsville Middle School, she did some community service at the Salvation Army, but not as a bell ringer. She helped clean, restock and move furniture.

Lt. Lisa Knotts, commander of the Martinsville Corps of the Salvation Army, has said the Red Kettle Drive will continue through Christmas Eve, and the goal is $48,000. Red kettles are at Walmart, Kmart, Liberty Fair Mall, Dollar Market, Walgreens, Roses and Big Lots. Bell ringers man the kettle stations from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day.

Having to hire bell ringers reduces the proceeds. To volunteer to be a bell ringer, call the Salvation Army at 638-7259.


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