Patrick Jackson rings the bell and welcomes customers at the entrance of Shaw’s supermarket in Auburn on a snowy Tuesday afternoon. The jolly fellow interacts with patrons with a big smile and witty comments as they come and go, and has been a fixture in the community for years. “I just love doing this, but sometimes I hear the bells ringing in my sleep,” he said. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

On a sunless December morning, the wind chill causes the frigid 25-degree temperature to feel like minus 10. Smiling broadly, asking how people are feeling and making what he calls “important eye contact,” Lewiston resident Nate Weymouth rings his bell with gusto in front of the Farmington Walmart.

He is heard but barely visible, buried beneath layers of sweaters, lined coveralls, wool coat and knit cap. A backpack with multiple pairs of thermal gloves and packages of hand and toe warmers stand at the ready. He produces a neck warmer, handmade for him last year by a Dixfield woman who’d stopped by his kettle, returning the next day with three of them. He gave away two to keep a friend and roommate warm.

While the arctic-style armor conceals his body, it can’t hide Weymouth’s determination.

Disabled and a Salvation Army volunteer on a mission, Weymouth, 35, rings his bell eight hours a day – minus a few crucial warming breaks – several days a week from Black Friday through Christmas Eve. He explains the race to meet year-end fundraising goals to provide food, shelter, heat, social services, clothing and furniture vouchers, transportation and toys at this time of year makes the biting cold bearable.

“I try to get people to talk, to get them in a better mood,” he said. “If they donate, great, if they don’t, I still want to make them smile. I do this with people every day of the year – not just now. I’m basically a community therapist.”

COMING UP SHORT

Capt. Jeff Street, overseeing Salvation Army activities for Androscoggin County since June 2018, said until now, Maine has been fortunate. In 2018, traditional Red Kettle Campaign donations were down nationally but up in Maine, something he attributes to decent weather, the wide base of community support and significant good neighbor spirit. Both that spirit and Androscoggin County funds collected extend to “service units” in Farmington and Mexico, where there are no corps offices, so churches and other organizations receive community funds.

“Our goal here last year was $100,000,” Street said. “We beat that by almost $20,000.”

But this year is different. Now in its 121st year, a very late Thanksgiving and Black Friday, the official kickoff day, means there is one fewer week in the campaign. With an adjusted goal from last year of $95,000, Street said that as of Friday only $72,405 had been raised with just days left before Christmas Eve, when the campaign ends.

According to Salvation Army sources, in the homestretch of the campaign now, Portland had reached only $117,500 of its $190,000 goal, with Bath at about 50 percent of its projected $68,000 goal and Augusta at $61,780 with a goal of $75,000.

“It’s likely we’ll fall short in Androscoggin County,” Street said, noting half of the funding for the entire year typically comes in during the year-end campaign. He explained many things can impact the kettles besides time, including harsh weather – either in terms of fewer people out shopping or a decision to pull in kettle workers for their own protection.

PUTTING IN THE TIME

Corps Sgt. Major Donnie Walsh, 62, a retired warehouse manager who has volunteered with the Salvation Army for more than 50 years, vividly recalls his first bell-ringing experience. His Sunday school class visited a red kettle, where they rang bells and sang carols in front of the Porteous, Mitchell and Braun Co. department store on Portland’s Congress Street, current home of the Maine College of Art. One of 15 children, the Lewiston resident said his father was an alcoholic until he found God. “He became fishing buddies with a pastor in the Portland corps,” he recalled. “He volunteered and wanted us to start going to the Salvation Army as well. I was 7.”

Donnie Walsh heads out from the Salvation Army offices on Park Street in Lewiston on Thursday morning with his empty buckets to drop off to bell ringers. Dustin Lessard, who is a new bell ringer this year, follows him. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Walsh logs 12-hour days, six days a week this time of year, where he loads kettles and other equipment into the van and drives volunteers from Lewiston to and from Farmington and Mexico where he also “stands.” Last week an elderly woman put four pennies in his kettle, telling him it was everything she had, and that the day before the Salvation Army had made it possible for her to heat her house or else she’d have frozen to death.

Throughout the year, Walsh drives children to appointments and classes in Lewiston and Auburn, and also focuses on Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services, which can take him into statewide, regional and national disasters where people have lost everything.

“I want to make sure they have help, that they know people care, including having food in their bellies,” Walsh said. To that end, he has seen the worst in places like Galveston, Texas, where in 2008 he ventured into the aftermath of Hurricane Rita, camping out in tents with 550 other workers from all over the country. The army of Emergency Disaster Service volunteers delivered food and aid to residents trying to salvage belongings out of the shells of houses that somehow remained.

“Most of them needed to be bulldozed,” he said. “It was real devastation like I’ve never seen.”

Walsh and his wife, Donna, who also volunteers throughout the year, have raised 10 children, including four belonging to Walsh’s sister. Daughter Debra, inspired by her father, is a Salvation Army captain in Pittsburgh, along with husband Michael Laro. “We believe it’s ‘Heart to God and Hand to Man,’” Walsh said. “Giving is year-round.”

WHERE THERE’S FIRE

Singing the praises of layers on a blustery cold day in front of Shaw’s supermarket in Auburn, Patrick Jackson, 43, is bundled in five long-sleeve shirts, two sweatshirts, a hat, coat and “double gloves.” Diabetic and disabled from multiple car accidents, Jackson worked much of his life in hospitality jobs, including dishwashing at the Ramada Inn and Denny’s.

The son of Auburn’s Christ Temple Church of God Pastor Albert Jackson, the younger Jackson was raised in a life of service, having spent the past 10 years bell ringing and responding to Salvation Army Emergency Disaster Services calls in the region.

Nate Weymouth gestures with his bell to where the other Salvation Army bell ringers have set up at Shaw’s supermarket in Auburn. Weymouth says that he was helped by the Salvation Army when he was homeless and now rings bells for its annual Christmas Drive to help others. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“When there’s a fire, we respond to it with the canteen truck to feed the firefighters and victims,” he explained, adding it’s not unusual to be onsite for a few hours or overnight. “I go where I’m needed,” he said.

In a decade of bell ringing, he recalls people in their 70s and 80s putting something in his kettle, telling him the Salvation Army helped their family when they were growing up so they’ve been donating ever since. Many thank him for standing out in rain and snow, though Jackson explains the organization takes as many precautions with its bell ringers as possible, including offering warm coats and boots, hand and toe warmers, and umbrellas, and not sending them out in storms.

BABY BELLS

At the Mexico Walmart on one of the coldest days of the season so far, Nate Weymouth – still smiling from his Farmington post – lets young children ring the bell, something he explains makes them feel good. “People of all ages need to be made to feel good about what they do,” he said.

In 2013, Weymouth accompanied his mother on an extended trip to Georgia for her health, and she decided to remain. Deciding home was really back in Maine, he took a bus in winter with just a small backpack and the clothes he was wearing. A heavy winter coat had been lost.

Without a place to stay and very late on a 16-degree night, he knocked on the door of Hope Haven Gospel Mission in Lewiston, which was closed but took him in. Hope Haven soon directed him to Lt. Dan Johnson at the Salvation Army, who gave him a hot meal, warm clothing and steered him toward other resources to re-establish his life in Lewiston.

In terms of his service from that point on, Weymouth says he’s never looked back. “They paid me an hourly rate to ring bells that year to accumulate enough money to pay for a room until, with their help, I could get into more permanent housing,” he explained.

He volunteers now.

Calling himself a “walking miracle,” Weymouth said he was stillborn with the umbilical cord wrapped three times around his neck. “They’d given up on me, but as I understand it my mother just wouldn’t let them, so they worked to resuscitate me for eight minutes.”

Weymouth has a memory of “talking to the man upstairs” who he said told him his time on Earth was just beginning and he would survive.

“Later, ever since I could comprehend words and sentences, I’ve just known my life was supposed to be about helping others,” he said, adding that God had told him to be himself.

“That’s all I can be – that’s all any of us can be,” he said, “to be the best part of ourselves no matter what. That’s why I do this.”

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