Mitchell Salvation Army struggling to find volunteers amid pandemic

Volunteers scarce, donations down due to COVID-19, leaders say

Volunteer Stephanie Eliason spends Tuesday morning as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army at County Fair Food Store in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

The Mitchell Salvation Army has its team of bell ringers out and around town for the holiday season, greeting shoppers at a number of community businesses and soliciting donations for the organization.

The volunteers are a vital group during an important time for the group, which relies on their work bringing in donations from shoppers to help fund the organization’s social work throughout the rest of the year.

And while it can be difficult to find enough volunteers during any given holiday season, finding them amidst a global pandemic can be even more difficult, as Mitchell Salvation Army leaders have found out this year with the arrival of COVID-19.

“It’s been a lot tougher,” said Bill Middendorp, co-captain for the Mitchell Salvation Army. “It’s hard to find people. Our volunteers are kind of the older crowd, usually, and they’re scared.”

It’s an understandable concern, he said. COVID-19 has killed 821 people in South Dakota since the outbreak began earlier this year, and killed 1.4 million people around the world. With the elderly considered among the most vulnerable to the disease, many in that age group are shying away from heavy social interaction.


That is taking a bite out of volunteers locally and around the world, he said.

“It’s understandable and it’s worldwide. The Salvation Army is in 141 countries, and our general is saying (the volunteer shortage) is worldwide, and donations are down,” he said.

The local organization serves the Mitchell area through various services, including food programs, worship and spiritual development, material and seasonal assistance. The international organization today serves over 100 countries around the globe, has over 1.5 million members, and assists more than 25 million Americans annually, according to the Salvation Army website.

Middendorp said he had two bell ringers working at five potential sites around Mitchell early this week, a telltale sign that staffing problems exist. While kettles remain on site even when there are no bell ringers, the volunteers make the difference in how well those sites do for donations.

“This morning I had two of my five sites going. The rest of them are sitting empty, and an empty kettle without a ringer brings in five to 10 bucks an hour. With (a ringer) it should be bringing in 20 to 50 bucks an hour,” Mittendorp said.

The organization is doing what it can to encourage safety for the volunteers who are stepping up. Bell ringers are encouraged to stay farther away from the actual kettles than usual, and mask wearing is a requirement. Middendorp said they sanitize the station after every shift, and volunteers keep their aprons and vests with them so they are not swapping accessories between them.

Some stores are also encouraging specific measures, including moving the bell ringers to just outside the store as opposed to a lobby.

And despite the volunteers who are turning up, local fundraising is down. Middendorp estimates that donations have dropped off 28% compared to an average year with a good portion of the bell ringing year behind them.


“Our kettles today were down about 28%. We’re a third done with the season, but 28% behind,” Middendorp said.

Donations may be down, but the need for the services provided by the group are up. The pandemic has increased the need for assistance among a portion of the population, straining the organization’s ability to address those needs.

“(The need for our) social programs is up between 100 and 300%. Our lunch program last year we hit 28 to 30 people per day, and we served 114 a couple of weeks ago and have been serving in the 80s and 90s regularly. It’s a lot of people every day for lunch,” Bill Middendorp said.

The Mitchell Salvation Army usually sets a goal of around $51,000 for donations this time of year, but the group expected a drop off this year with the pandemic continuing to disrupt life and the economy and managed their expectations accordingly. And while it can be frustrating to deal with the circumstances, organizers are maintaining good spirits, said Debbi Middendorp, another co-captain for the Mitchell Salvation Army.

“We’re not discouraged. God can do some amazing things. Even in a pandemic,” she said.

The Middendorps are hoping people who are interested in volunteering for the Salvation Army will reach out to them. They are always willing to make scheduling adjustments for people who want to even work a single shift, as every volunteer is valuable this year.

And donations are always welcome in any form, not just the traditional black kettles staffed by friendly local volunteers. This time of year is crucial to the group in their efforts to cover the costs of their work, and every little bit counts.

“One of the slogans with our fundraising is that need has no season. There is a need year-round, it doesn’t matter what season we’re in,” Debbi Middendorp said.


Mitchell Salvation Army bell ringers and donation kettles can currently be found at Coborn’s, Walmart, Cabella’s and County Fair. A fifth location is expected to open up after the Thanksgiving holiday. Those interested in volunteering or donating can contact the Mitchell Salvation Army at 996-3964.

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at
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