They come out across America every Christmas season, the Salvation Army bell ringers and their red kettles. From sunup to sundown, their bells don’t stop ringing outside of department stores, grocery stores, malls and other places with heavy foot traffic. Some sing and dance, but they all spread holiday cheer while collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars to help others.
Among them are Pamela Gratts, 51, and Cassandra Thomas, 50, who ring their bells outside of different locations in northwest Washington, D.C. Gratts, Thomas and thousands of others who stand proudly collecting money are called “the army behind the Army.”
And behind many of those volunteers is a story of salvation and redemption.
Pamela Gratts’ whole life changed in her 39th year. A self-described workaholic, Gratts moved to Washington from Kansas City, Mo., for work. She spent her days caring for patients as a nurse at the Washington Hospital Center. “I had no worries in the world,” said Gratts. “I had no children, a nice home, a car, insurance, and a career that I loved.
“My mother used to always say to me, ‘You are just one paycheck away from being at the same level as someone beneath you.’” She never expected that someone to be her. “I had a stroke, and in a blink of an eye, I had nothing,” she said.
When Cassandra Thomas, who Gratts befriended 34 years earlier in Jackson, Miss., heard the news, she came to be by Gratts side. Thomas struggled with drug addiction, but came to help.
“When I got sick, she dropped everything to come take care of me,” Gratts said.
Gratts, crippled by the stroke and virtually penniless, and Thomas, struggling with her addiction, soon found themselves sleeping on the streets of Washington – carless, jobless and homeless. “I went from being financially independent and self-sufficient to actually on the streets in a wheelchair,” Gratts said. “I was going through a lot mentally, physically, and financially, but I was determined not to stay there.”
“We were homeless, but I wasn’t going to leave her,” Thomas said. “She couldn’t walk or talk. In the beginning, I wasn’t getting paid a dime to take care of her, but I did it out of love.”
They turned to The Salvation Army. “When you don’t have anything and you have to ask an organization for something, it’s a mental trip,” Gratts said. “But The Salvation Army paid my rent and bought me groceries. They never turned me away.”
Thomas, now drug free, is a certified nurse and Gratts’ primary caregiver. Despite having a home and caregiver, Gratts suffered with the sense of being useless. It made her depressed, she said.
Two years ago, she and Thomas went to The Salvation Army’s Thanksgiving Dinner on Sherman Avenue. That is where they met Capt. Ray Jackson and his wife, Shalanda. Capt. Jackson asked if she could be a bell ringer. Gratts and Thomas said they are happy to volunteer for The Salvation Army.
“Seven years ago, the Salvation Army helped me when I was on drugs,” Thomas said as she wiped away tears. “They took me in and didn’t charge me a dime. Now I volunteer so I can give back. If you’ve been where I’ve been and God saved and took care of you, this ain’t nothing. The Salvation Army is truly the salvation army. It saves people.”
Gratts, confined to a wheelchair, said she gets joy every single day when she’s out ringing bells. At 6 a.m., she said, she’s already up and waiting for Thomas to come get her out of bed. “It puts such an impression on my life,” Gratts said. “As soon as it’s over, I’m looking forward to the next day and year. I pray to God that I am able to get up and still do this. It’s just something about bell ringing. It’s not about money, because I have an income now. It’s the idea of giving back.”
When Grant is not bell-ringing, she said she spends her days going to her doctors’ appointments, watching TV, and doing things to stay active. “During this time of the season, it seems as though I’m still ill, but I’m not as less functional as I feel before,” Gratts said. “Volunteering has changed my whole way of thinking. I have to tell myself that my health is going to get better. When I have my bad days or bad weeks I have to keep my faith in God and tell myself that this only temporary.”
Bell-ringing is what keeps Gratts going and helps with her mental stability. “They saved this,” Gratts said, pointing to her head. “I’m happy now, and my mental health is transformed, which has made my body feel a lot better.”
Gratts said she is grateful for the Salvation Army. “I will always volunteer for the Salvation Army,” she said with a smile, “any season, but especially this season. It’s just something about these little red kettles.”