Peter Wilson has learned not to judge people who don’t put any money in his Salvation Army kettle.

He knows that some folks who look like they can afford to give may be poor themselves.

“They just dress up nice,” he said. “They want to dress up nice and that’s all they can do, hoping that they can get a good job.”

I met Wilson on Tuesday outside Walmart in Waterville, where he was constantly ringing a red metal Salvation Army bell.

“Thank you! Merry Christmas!” he called out to a young woman who stuffed a dollar bill into the kettle.

Wilson, 47, started ringing the Salvation Army bells about 10 years ago, after he began attending the organization’s church. For the first few years, he was a volunteer; but then the Salvation Army had to start paying bell ringers because volunteers were hard to come by, he said.

Wilson likes the job. He says hello to everyone who passes in and out of the store, whether they donate or not.

“I’d say about 50 percent of the people put money in the kettle,” he said. “Some go in the store and say they’ll give on the way out. I’ve had some give on the way in and the way out, especially the ones with little kids, because kids always want to put money in. If they’re real good, I let them ring the bell.”

Wilson is a friendly, outgoing person who engages shoppers in conversation, often by commenting on something they have purchased.

“I see you got something special for the kitty,” he said to a woman whose shopping cart contained a cardboard scratching pad. “My cat had one of those. I had it hidden in the corner, but the cat scratched right through it and ripped it all up.”

It was a busy afternoon at Walmart, so busy that shoppers were having trouble finding carts. Wilson helped them when he could, but didn’t want to stray far from his kettle.

“Keep up the good work,” a man with a gray ponytail told him.

A lot of people rushed in and out of the store without looking at or acknowledging Wilson when he greeted them, but many stopped to chat, even though they did not donate money.

Wilson treated them all with kindness, perhaps because he knows everyone has a story, and not all stories are happy ones.

His own life has been tough. He was born in Albion and placed in foster homes at age 8. After he graduated from Lawrence High School in 1985, he met a girl and moved to Florida. He attended St. Petersburg Junior College and got an associate degree in accounting, but his relationship took a downturn. He became depressed and had to give up his job; then he moved back to Maine.

“I have major depression — recurrent, severe. I’m trying to get back into college. I go to High Hopes Clubhouse (for people with mental illnesses) and I’m going to try to get into Thomas College and get a bachelor’s in accounting. I need at least a bachelor’s up here to become a CPA, and I’m also thinking of getting a master’s and possibly try to get a job at a school because I’ve been told I’m a good teacher. At High Hopes, they have had me teach people how to use a computer.”

Wilson also has severe diabetes and is on an insulin pump, but he does not seek sympathy; in fact, he revealed his health problems only after I asked about his life. He takes it one day at a time, he said, and hopes one day to be married and have children.

“I want ’em real bad, but right now I don’t technically have a girlfriend. Now I’m just trying to meet somebody.”

As he spoke, Lillian Gifford, 77, of Hartland, emerged from the store with a cart full of Christmas presents and waited by the curb for her sister to pick her up. Gifford, who was connected to a portable oxygen tank, stuffed some dollar bills into the kettle. It’s important to give, she said.

“My neighbors are younger than I am and they’re disabled,” she said. “They will hardly ever ask for any help. For Thanksgiving, they didn’t have any company and no place to go, so we fixed up a plate for them and my sister and my daughter took it over to them. When I make cookies, I send them over — or muffins. One day I took a pie over to them. They’re very nice.”

Wilson thanked Gifford for her contribution, joked around with her and waved goodbye.

He said he loves making people happy.

“It makes me happy,” he said.

The rewards he reaps from ringing the bells are plenty, he said. One of the best came last year, as he was standing in that same spot, he said. It was after a young girl came out of the store and put some money in the kettle.

“Then, she turned around and went right back in the store, and several minutes later she came out and handed me a greeting card she had bought for me. This was a little teenager. I don’t think she was more than 12 or 13. I opened it up and it said, ‘Thank you for ringing the bells.’ I couldn’t believe she did that.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 25 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]

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