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Salvation Army volunteerism declines, some bell ringers earn pay

Danny Ockenhouse bundles up to collect donations at Walmart 8 hours a day, 3 days a week.
Haley O'Brien
Danny Ockenhouse bundles up to collect donations at Walmart 8 hours a day, 3 days a week.

Danny Ockenhouse sits outside the door at Walmart in East Stroudsburg in his motorized wheelchair and rings the bell. He’s greeting shoppers as they drop donations in the iconic red kettle for the Salvation Army’s annual campaign.

“I ring bells and yank chains and have fun," he said. "I do more work getting ready for work than I do at work.”

Since 1900, people have traditionally volunteered for the job. But the Salvation Army started paying some bell ringers in 2021.

Major John Wheeler is commanding officer at the Salvation Army East Stroudsburg corps.

“Most of our kettles are manned by paid people. If we don't have volunteers, then we have to pay people to cover those spots," he said.

He explains people don’t commit to volunteering as much as they used to.

“In the old days, people used to volunteer regularly, specifically Salvation Army church members would get involved. Most Salvation Army church members today have full-time jobs and are unable to volunteer as much time on the kettles," he said. "And then it's just a state of American society today, volunteering has changed quite a bit. And regular continual volunteer support is different than it used to be in the past. So we just pay people to cover our kettles.”

The Salvation Army relies on cash collected during the red kettle campaign to fund year-long programming. Since 2022, the Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware division reported an 11% decrease in volunteerism and as a result, a 15% decrease in funds raised in 2022.

Danny considers himself lucky to have the gig. He lost his job in 2016 when his employer changed the job requirements. Danny has cerebral palsy, his hands are stiff, and his vision is impaired.

He was a greeter at this very Walmart, and now he’s at the same location - just outside the door - joking with passersby and the regulars who light up when they see him.

“I gotta be glad that I'm not suffering. Yes, I'm in a chair. But I'm not suffering," Danny said. "So I figured why can't I get out there and get into mischief? You know, actually do something good.”

And no matter the weather, he commutes about two miles in his motorized chair. For about six weeks every year, for more than 10 years, Danny has been doing this.

In East Stroudsburg, the Salvation Army has five regular volunteers and seven paid employees who man three locations in the area. To donate or learn more about one-time, ongoing, or group volunteer opportunities, visit The Salvation Army's website.

Haley joined the WVIA news team in 2023 as a reporter and host. She grew up in Scranton and studied Broadcast Journalism at Marywood University. Haley has experience reporting in Northeast Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley. She enjoys reporting on Pennsylvania history and culture, and video storytelling.

You can email Haley at haleyobrien@wvia.org