Erica Frederick-Rock, left, and Anna Grant, right, ring bells as Elijah Grant sanitizes the red kettle Dec. 12 at the Walmart Supercenter in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — Lewis Ouellet said if it weren’t for support from the local Salvation Army, Christmas wouldn’t be the same for his daughter Kyla-Ann.

“I do landscaping and then I shovel during the winter,” Ouellet said. “I make ends meet and if it wasn’t for them, my daughter wouldn’t have any presents. Bills have to come first.”

Officials from central Maine’s Salvation Army said that many other families like Ouellet’s have been asking for help during the holiday season amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Salvation Army has has deployed its bell ringers for its Red Kettle Campaign the year, but donors have been few and far between compared to previous years.

Elijah Grant wipes off the Salvation Army red kettle between donations Dec. 12 at the Walmart Supercenter in Augusta. Volunteers were sanitizing their buckets between donors. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Ouellet said volunteers and officials from the Salvation Army are “like a family.” He said he struggled with alcoholism three years ago but is on the road to recovery with help from the Salvation Army. He is also part of a Celebrate Recovery program that supports others in the community who struggled with addiction.

“You go in there and you’ll come out with a smile 95% of the time, unless you’re really grumpy,” Ouellet said. “They just don’t give you the food or give you the present, they’ll sit there and talk to you if they have time.”

Despite the pandemic, Bell Ringer Mike Ervin, 52, said he’s been surprised with the generosity of the community that visits his usual location at the Waterville Walmart.

“I’ve been surprised with the donations that we have,” he said. “We haven’t had an extreme amount of donations, but we’re not hurting.”

Ervin said that being a bell ringer “means the world to him,” as he knows that he is doing his part to get funding that will go to support community members.

“I know that I’m making a difference for people that are going to need it after the (pandemic),” he said. “As a bell ringer, I’m able to come out here and do this for them.”

On Saturday, bell ringers at the Augusta Walmart were clad in masks and frequently wiping down the iconic Red Kettle. Ervin said that in normal years, he may dress up as Santa Claus and hand out candy canes. Due to social distancing guidelines, he said he couldn’t do that this year.

Susan Thacker organizes donated toys Dec. 12 at the Salvation Army’s Christmas Castle in an empty storefront in the Marketplace at Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Scott Murray, central Maine’s Salvation Army regional corps officer, said donations were down about 40% on Black Friday compared to 2019, though some locations saw reductions of as much as 65%. Black Friday donations usually account for about 10% of the organization’s holiday Red Kettle Campaign, which lasts about 35 days. Murray said the campaign had a goal of bringing in $90,000 and has raised about $45,000 so far, but usually would be around $55,000 to $60,000.

Murray said that some specific donors have made large contributions designed to help purchase toys, but with decreased donations the group will still have to purchase some toys itself.

“We saw a modest increase in the number of families who need help with toys and clothing for Christmas, but we have seen a significant decline in the number of toys being donated,” he said. “In a normal year, toy donations always meet the needs of the families we’re blessed to serve, but this is far from a normal year.”

Elijah Grant wipes off the Salvation Army red kettle between donations Dec. 12 at the Walmart Supercenter in Augusta. Volunteers were sanitizing their buckets between donors. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Compounding the decrease in donations, there is an increase in need. Murray said more families are requesting help for the first time, including those who have previously been donors.

“I did quite a few Christmas interviews with families registering for Christmas assistance and while I’ve been doing this for a long time, my heart broke over and over,” he said. “We’ve never seen need like this.”

Murray said he has financial concerns for the future, citing “donor fatigue.” He said Salvation Army’s food pantry is handing out double the boxes than a year ago and proving more heating oil assistance, and will have to ensure sufficient funding if the trend continues.

“While our resources are stretched, we will be able to serve every family we’ve signed up and more,” Murray said. “It will be financially tight this year, but we will serve every family as we have in the past and will in the future.”

Murray said bell ringers can be found at Shaw’s in Augusta and Waterville, Walmart in Augusta, Big Lots in Augusta, Hobby Lobby in Waterville, Sam’s Club in Augusta and JCPenney in Waterville.

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