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Salvation Army bells are ringing in Hall County
Organization collects money for local children, families in need
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Salvation Army members set up the iconic symbols of the Christmas giving season Friday, bringing out the red kettle and bell to 25 locations around Hall County.

During the season's kickoff event at Lakeshore Mall on Pearl Nix Parkway in Gainesville, several local residents dropped change into the bucket and picked up a few gift ideas from the organization's angel tree for children in need.

"It's one of the traditional sounds of the season. We've been a part of the American tradition since 1891," said Lt. Matt Cunningham, who runs the local Salvation Army branch with his wife, Danielle. "With this program, we're not just helping children at Christmas but also families with rent, utilities and shelter throughout the year."

Every dollar that goes in the kettle stays in the Hall County area, he said.

"We're able to use that money on your neighbors and your family," he said. "The face of need has changed in the past few years, and need has really increased this year."

The angel trees feature more than 1,600 children this year who put toys and clothes on their wish lists.

"We have a son with autism, and we can take care of his medical needs. A lot of families have the same problems or worse and don't have the ability to take care of their kids," said Karla Burris, who picked up two gift lists with her husband Joe. "We picked siblings, a boy and a girl who need bedframes. We want to help the children who need it the most. It's the least you can do."

Gainesville City Council members Myrtle Figueras and Bob Hamrick showed up to ring a bell, and city employee Joe Davidson rang a bell with them, recalling the time when Salvation Army officials helped his parents as they traveled between Texas and Georgia in 1961.

"They were almost back to the base when they ran out of gas," said Davidson, a plans review employee in the city's Community Development Department. "The Salvation Army put them up for the night and gave them gas money. My mother has never forgotten that."

Each volunteer has a story, many that mirror Davidson's, Cunningham said.

"Families come through a horrible crisis and then volunteer to give back," he said. "We also have the volunteers who are now coming to us this year for help."

Cunningham has interesting tales from years of standing next to a kettle, including people who complain about the ringing and others who donate large amounts of money.

"One guy said he would give me $20 to stop ringing the bell, so I held it until he got in his car and then started ringing again," he said. "And if you look up news stories, you'll see every year a group in Chattanooga, (Tenn.) receives several valuable gold coins, and they never can figure out who it is."

Cunningham also finds odd items in the buckets when he sorts through the change. One year, he found a tooth.

"When people grab whatever is in their pockets, we get rings, earrings and lint. The year I found a tooth in southern Georgia, I was talking to my board of directors, and one realized it was her pastor who was going to the doctor with it," he said with a laugh. "The funniest part is that we found out who it belonged to. We always hold onto those items just in case people come searching for them."