In the midst of their regular Monday night meeting at Park Hills United Methodist Church, the young men of Scout Troop 417 get a lesson in citizenship.
“How many of you know what you’re doing when you’re ringing the bell for United Way?” asked Donna Hickman, executive director of the United Way of St. Francois County.
“We’re raising money!” said one scout.
“We’re helping people!” said another.
“You’re absolutely right!” Hickman answered with a smile.
The scouts are among more than 1,000 volunteers who will ring bells at five locations in St. Francois County Nov. 23 through Dec. 24. The money put in wishing wells will support the agencies to be funded in 2013 by the United Way of St. Francois County. To join the scouts in signing up for an hour or more, contact Hickman at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 760-8929.
“It’s important for you to understand that all the money people put in those wishing wells goes to the agencies to help people in St. Francois County,” Hickman told the scouts. “That’s 100 percent of every donation at the wells. We take great pride in telling people that. It’s important.”
When the bells start ringing this year, it will mark the 25th anniversary of the start of bell-ringing that eventually led to the organization of the United Way of St. Francois County. The Salvation Army worked with Farmington leaders like Kevin Engler to start the program in 1988. Engler and others insisted that 2/3 of the money raised go to the two food pantries in Farmington and the rest would go to the Salvation Army. Now, 25 years later, the Salvation Army still gets a third and returns it to the county to help people here and the rest goes to the agencies in St. Francois County supported by the United Way.
“We have pledged $190,000 to 30 agencies in 2013,” explained Dennis Smith, president of the United Way Board of Directors. “The bell-ringing program is a big part of raising the money we need to keep that pledge.”
Bells will ring daily at the Farmington Walmart Supercenter and on weekends at Penneys, Mike’s Market in Bismarck, Country Mart in Park Hills and Big Lots in Leadington.
“And every penny of every donation goes to the agencies we fund,” said Smith. For a complete list of the agencies to be funded, go to www.unitedwayofsfc.org.
Rocky Good, pastor of New Heights Church, has been a bell-ringer since shortly after he moved to Farmington in 1990.
“I started helping Kevin and we were just trying to cover one door then and just ringing on Fridays and Saturdays,” he recalled. “People just started calling asking if they could ring and we kept adding hours. What I remember most about those early days is people just really wanting to make sure they know where their money is going.”
The United Way of St. Francois County is governed by a board of directors made up of local community leaders who review all applications for funding and make decisions on the agencies that will receive United Way grants each year. In January of this year, the United Way awarded more than $182,000 in grants to 28 agencies.
When Mike Gladbach joined the board in the early 1990s, he brought in Bonnie Bockenkamp who joined Good in scheduling ringers – individuals and groups like the Farmington Kiwanis, Lions and Elks, as well as churches.
“People are glad to give their time and money,” said Good. “I think that’s because we’ve always been transparent about where the money goes. It stays here, helping here.”
Good said the needs have changed since the program began. Now, instead of serving just a few people through the pantries, the United Way serves a great many people through the agencies that meet all kinds of needs throughout the county.
“If I ring for one hour for four weeks, that’s helping to bring in more money than I’m able to give,” said Good. “People need to know they’re making a real difference in helping people in need.”
Troop 417 is one of a number of scout troops that take a turn at the bells. Several of the scouts have rung for several years.
“It teaches them about giving back to the community,” said Gene Bannister, a leader of Troop 417. “It teaches them to be good citizens.”
School groups, church groups and families sign up to ring the bell with the idea they, too, are helping to teach a new generation that it’s important to give back to your community.
“Whether you want to give an hour or a day, it takes a great many people giving whatever time they can to encourage others to give the money they can so the United Way can continue its work,” said Smith.
Hickman said she often tells people that nothing unites St. Francois County like the United Way.
“And, indeed, the bell-ringing program emphasizes how a little can translate to a lot,” she said. “Besides, the holiday season is all about being thankful and giving and the bell-ringing program is a great way to show how thankful you are by giving your time and your money.”
And she added, “So, come on -- get your jingle on and ring for United Way!”