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Candi Rust wipes down the donation bucket after a donation while working the Salvation Army collection site outside at the Bon Center Safeway on Friday afternoon, Dec. 4, 2020. Bell ringers were social distancing from the bucket and sanitizing the buckets after each donation to keep everything COVID-19 safe. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Members of the El Paso County Salvation Army entered the familiar Red Kettle campaign a little nervous this year.

“Because of COVID guidelines, social distancing, fear and uncertainty, we didn’t know what to expect,” spokeswoman Brett Harrison said. “We were hoping for the best, but expected to be down in kettles and expected to struggle to staff all of our kettle sites.”

But the coronavirus didn't infect the 2020 effort — the $445,000 raised over six and a half weeks in November and December surpassed the church’s goal and also topped collections from the previous year, Harrison said.

About $6,700 in donations came in during the last week of December, when an anonymous donor matched online contributions dollar-for-dollar.

“We are blown away by the response by El Paso County,” Harrison said. “We have seen this community come together for a variety of different events, but this year has been especially touching.”

The Salvation Army hired 66 people to ring bells at the kettles that were stationed outside of local businesses and recruited 78 individuals or groups as volunteer bell ringers.

Hiring was difficult this year, and volunteers sign-ups were down, Harrison said.

“A number of regular individual volunteers and volunteer groups backed out due to fear or being high-risk,” she said.

Bell ringers were trained to social distance from the kettles and sanitized them after each donation to keep everything COVID-19 safe.

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Along with coins and paper money being stuffed into red kettles or committed online, residents also stepped up with donations of toys and food for various services.

“It's incredible to see that a community can rally together to meet the need when the need was much, much greater,” Harrison said.

Unexpected expenses increased last year from the need for personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and other items to meet pandemic regulations, she said.

Money collected during the Red Kettle season will be used for the church’s year-round programs that include providing shelter for homeless men, women and children at the R.J. Montgomery Center; offering emergency food assistance and hot meals; providing housing for veterans, seniors and families; hosting youth activities, remote-learning centers and after-school care; supplying rent and utility assistance; and other social services.

“We feel so incredibly blessed that in a year where people are struggling, those who were able to give stepped up to help us,” Harrison said. “We can’t thank you enough. Your giving will allow us to continue all of our programs and services in 2021.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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