The Salvation Army Helped Save My Grandfather During the Great Depression. Now We’re Giving Back

As a child growing up in the Great Depression, my paternal grandfather — like so many others — had almost nothing. His own father had left, so he, his mother and younger brother were on their own. He told us of eking out every ounce of usefulness from everything they owned, even putting cardboard in the bottom of his shoes to mask the places that the sole had worn through.

Grandfather also told us about the kindnesses he received, which instilled a gratitude that lasted his entire life. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the Salvation Army helped his family, giving him respite from worries that a child shouldn’t have — a blessing that allowed him some time just to be a kid.

My grandfather graduated high school, served in World War II and worked his way up in business. When it became possible for him to give back, he did so. He never forgot the importance of the organization, and taught my dad and his grandchildren to do so, too. One way we show our support is by ringing the bell for the Salvation Army’s ubiquitous red kettles at Christmas time to help raise the money needed to help other needy families.


My parents manning the Salvation Army’s red kettle in Northern Michigan.| Photo: Amelia Hamilton

With more than a century of red kettle giving in the books, it’s hard to imagine how many people have been touched through this fundraiser. The Salvation Army began collecting funds in a kettle in 1891, when Captain Joseph McFee wanted to provide Christmas dinner to 1,000 people in need, but had no way to pay for it. With a brass urn, he stood at the Oakland ferry landing in California with a sign that said “Keep the Pot Boiling.” It didn’t take him long to raise the money he needed to feed the poor.

The idea expanded across the west coast and, soon, across the country (and, now, the world). By 1897, Boston’s red kettle raised enough to feed 150,000 people in need at Christmas and, now, these kettles collect hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Our story is not unique. The Salvation Army has helped countless individuals throughout its long history, and there are as many reasons to ring the bell as there are volunteers who ring them. The Salvation Army calls these reasons we have for volunteering a “Red Kettle Reason.” Ours, of course, is my Grandpa Hamilton. Everyone is invited to share their own story on social media using the hashtag RedKettleReason.

Here are a few:

My grandpa was always grateful to the Salvation Army, a gratitude that has been passed down through generations. We hope that by paying it forward, we are helping another child like him, and another family in need.

Amelia Hamilton is a contributor for Opportunity Lives. You can follow her on Twitter @ameliahammy.