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.
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.
“It's a lot of fun,” he said. “I really wish more people would take advantage of the opportunity to help us out.”
Potter, who celebrates his 11th Christmas as kettle coordinator this year, is also the facilities manager for the central Oklahoma chapter of the Salvation Army. But those job duties don't compare to his routine during the holiday season.
“There's just nothing that seems as vital and essential as this,” Potter said. “It's a 24-hour thing. It's total concentration.”
‘... When you're the one ringing the bell'
At noon Thursday outside the Edmond Walmart on W Danforth Road, two bell ringers stood outside adjacent doors.
Kyle Harris, a 34-year-old career counselor at the University of Central Oklahoma, was a first-time volunteer bell ringer.
“I didn't know what to expect,” Harris said. “It's one of those things you walk by all the time. You see these every year. So many times people just walk on by. It's a totally different mentality when you're the one ringing the bell.”
Christopher Erdman, 33, rings his bell as a lone source of income this holiday season. He's become one of Potter's more trusted employees. The respect is mutual.
“I told (Potter) today that we're going to fill this bucket up by 2 or 3 this afternoon (and) he's going to have to bring me another one,” Erdman said. “I think he's a very generous person, he's got a really tough job. You've really got to be crazy, in a good sense, to get everyone where they need to be.”
The bell ringers are off the clock at 8 p.m., picked up by a driver and brought back to the shelter. Potter collects the money from the kettles, sealing each haul in individually labeled bags counted by volunteers the next morning.
Potter said the value of his work is more than just logistics. He's built lasting friendships with many of his bell ringers over the years. He grins when talking about the homeless and down-on-their-luck men and women who've used the work opportunity to better their lives.
That's when his cell phone buzzes yet again.
“All day,” Potter laughed. “Every bell ringer I've had for the last 10 years has my phone number. So they call me all year long.”