Salvation Army kettle coordinator brings passion to job

BY KYLE FREDRICKSON kfredrickson@opubco.com Modified: December 20, 2013 at 11:00 am •  Published: December 20, 2013

Ernie Potter just started a 15-hour work shift and his cell phone won't stop ringing.

It's 10 a.m. inside the Salvation Army's men's shelter near downtown Oklahoma City. Potter, a 64-year-old Texas native and military veteran with a booming voice, stands with clipboard in hand among 55 people seated in blue plastic chairs at round wooden tables.

It's a melting pot of warmly-dressed men and women sipping coffee from disposable cups — retirees, homeless and disabled people, law enforcement and war veterans, college students, part-time job hunters, stay-at-home moms and more.

Since Nov. 22, they've gathered here every Monday through Saturday morning while Potter, the local Salvation Army's kettle coordinator, takes roll. Each member in the room is assigned and driven to a location in the metro area, equipped with a shiny red kettle, tripod and bell.

These are the men and women who stand outside shopping centers, grocery stores and pharmacies during the holiday season. They ring bells, hand out candy canes and give well wishes to the public in return for coins and bills placed into those classic red kettles.

The Salvation Army is hurting for donations following the winter storm that hit central Oklahoma in early December. After hauling in more than $430,000 in Oklahoma City each of the past three years, the 2013 count is less than $230,000, with just four days left in the campaign.

Juggling tasks

Potter's job is to organize the fleet of bell ringers for maximum efficiency. He arrives at the center each work morning at 7 a.m., and he's the last one to leave at 10 p.m. The time in between is filled with phone calls, setting up pick-up and drop-off times for bell ringers who don't have their own transportation, and tactically placing his best workers at high-traffic locations.

“I love doing it,” Potter said. “But it completely takes over my life. I'm constantly on the phone directing traffic and taking care of problems. A lot of it is knowing the strengths and the weaknesses of different people and locations.

“There's a lot of juggling involved. When one of my key people doesn't make it, then it takes a whole lot of shuffling. It sounds really simple, but it can be really complicated. We've got a lot of diversity here.”

It started in October, when the Salvation Army received nearly 250 applications for bell ringers, who receive minimum wage with incentives for higher donation totals. In early November, Potter gave each kettle a fresh coat of red paint. He tightened the tripod screws and polished the bells.

By the week before Thanksgiving, the applicant pool is cut to about 60 people who will work until Christmas Eve. There are volunteer groups that also serve as bell ringers, but Potter said they account for about 10 percent of his team.

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