THE kids rang the bells so hard, the steel ball inside one fell off. Repeatedly. But the teenagers I volunteered to shiver with outside a local Wal-Mart for the Salvation Army wanted to make a racket. And they did.
In the bitter cold, next to the plain red bucket suspended by a chain in a stand, they had come to be noticed, to make a difference. What they and I didn't expect was that the difference would be on us.
Ringing bells to raise money for the charity was supposed to impart a practical lesson in community service for a bunch of Catholic eighth graders from an area Confirmation class. They're learning about the choices and responsibilities connected to coming of age in their faith and about what it means to move beyond the "taker" mind-set of childhood to the "giver" incumbency of caring adults.
Bell ringing was a baby step in the journey, yet it was a way for them to give something to others without expecting anything in return. Of course they did get something for their time and energy as spirited, adolescent bell ringers, such as fellowship, a few laughs, and freezing extremities.
But maybe they also got something else in the bargain by people-watching. I did. As I shifted in place to fight the numbing chill, it seemed that there was an almost Dickens-like quality to the scene in front of the store.
Folks of all means and manner hurried past our ringing bells, the haves and the have-nots moving in and out of the automatic sliding doors. The steady stream of humanity carried shoppers too busy to bother with the commotion that greeted them, some who did everything to avoid eye contact with the ringers, and others who appeared slightly annoyed that noisy panhandlers were even allowed near the premises.
Frankly, we were uncomfortable reminders of tough times in a season meant to be merry. We were also begging for money in a part of Ohio that has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state and where the largest employers in some nearby towns and villages have either gone under or laid off most of their work force.
As the ever-rising numbers of unemployed workers - or those who fear imminent job loss - dramatically curb most discretionary spending, plenty of other hometown businesses that relied on local support to survive don't. And the ripple effect in numerous closed retailers and shuttered restaurants has been profound.
Clearly, ringing bells next to the trademark receptacle of the Salvation Army hit close to home for many this December. But incredibly, many nevertheless responded with moving generosity. They wanted to give what little they had to help those with even less.
One after another, they shoved dollar bills in the narrow slot on top of the bucket, often not saying a word or looking up. They didn't seek attention or gratitude.
A few murmured an offhand "Merry Christmas" to the bell ringers and quickly walked into the packed parking lot without looking back.
Yet something had compelled them to give before they left. The same seeming compulsion drew people again and again to our clanging corner with their folded bills ready to stuff into the bucket. Parents pressed coins into their children's small hands to drop in the container, determined that they should learn the importance of giving.
People with barely a coat to stay warm fished for whatever change they had in worn pockets to contribute something. The especially poignant moments came from those with probably the least to give who gave probably more than they could afford.
And there were more souls in that category than you might suspect, donating perhaps their last fluttering dollar or 50 cents to charity because they know what's it's like to depend on the goodness of others and understand, better than most, how great the need.
By midday, the red container was practically full from nonstop contributions. People had to push their paper money a little harder into the slot before it vanished, and more than a few remarked that the snug fit caused by a brimming bucket was a good problem. Indeed it was.
But the impressive display of giving paid dividends beyond a bountiful one-day tally for the Salvation Army.
The experience gave a group of young bell ringers a glimpse of what public service could accomplish through selflessness and what a struggling community could accomplish with enough heart.
And as night fell above the din of the persistent bells, the difference came to us not so much from what we did, but from what we witnessed: the humility of the hardest-hit who gave when they should have received and who asked nothing in return.
Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.