Local radiates goodness through holiday cheer

Online Poster

Online Poster

By Agnes Jasinski

He greets every customer cheerfully, standing in front of the Champaign Schnuck’s supermarket, whether they pay attention to his cause or not. Don McGee, a Louisiana native, has been jingling outside of the store since the day before Thanksgiving as thanks to the Salvation Army, which helped him when he was down on his luck.

“I hope by helping others I can be helped. Maybe somewhere down the line, I’ll be blessed,” he said. “I love it… feeling the momentum, shaking my bell.”

McGee stands outside Schnuck’s Monday through Friday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., helping out on an occasional Saturday as well. As a former traveling door-to-door salesman of children’s books and magazine subscriptions, he said he knows how to approach people and never takes it personally when his red kettle is ignored.

“I love talking to the people. They come from all walks of life,” he said. “So many of them approach me, ask me if I’m hungry or need anything. I get four or five coffees a day.”

McGee doesn’t stand outside for eight hours a day for the free coffee. He feels obligated to do his best as an official bell ringer for the Salvation Army to pay back his debts. When he came to Champaign, he had little to his name. The Christian organization offered him food, clothing and shelter when he had nowhere else to turn and has inspired him to work for a full-time position with the group.

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“Every day I learn more and more,” he said. “I would love to work for them.”

McGee hopes in a few years time to have graduated from a training facility to become a commissioned officer in the Salvation Army and eventually become a captain. He sees his job outside of Schnuck’s as a stepping stone to that goal, as he makes a name for himself in the community. He would find the job easy if it wasn’t for the standing, he said, but loves where he was placed because he used to work in the seafood department of Schnuck’s and can make visits with a lot of the current employees.

“He’s always out there with a smile on his face,” said Christ Barsheny, a Schnuck’s employee. “He was there in the snow and the sleet, bearing the cold.”

Capt. Matthew Martin, assistant officer with the Salvation Army and overseer of the kettle program, said he is happy with his group of volunteers. Although there is always a need for more volunteers, a solid group always comes out for the holidays.

“We’ve got a good base of service in Champaign,” he said. “They’re all professional, and they’re all consistent. We’ve got a large operation here.”

The Salvation Army’s goal for its Christmas campaign this year is to raise $270,000- $20,000 more than last year. The money comes from not only the red kettles, but from donations sent to the organization as well. A strike against the group this year is the non-soliciting ban outside several major retailers, including Target, Best Buy and Circuit City.

“We’re hopeful they’ll allow us back,” Martin said. “It’s hurt us a little, but we’re still going to press on.”

Martin doesn’t take the ban personally and believes the stores’ reasoning is that they didn’t want to have to choose between charities. The locations where bell ringers are present, however, seem to have been successful. Martin said Wal-Mart and the Schnuck’s locations have been the most consistent in bringing in donations.

“It’s a very worthy thing,” Champaign resident Janette Forrestor said of the Salvation Army’s efforts. “I think it’s really tough to be out here. They’re clearly dedicated.”

McGee doesn’t seem to mind the work, wishing everyone a “good day” and “Merry Christmas” as they pass.

“I like the brand of people here,” he said. “I would do it every year if I could. I want to help the kids out that can’t have Christmas.”