5 Things I Bet You Didn’t Know About The Salvation Army & Its Red Kettle Campaign in Marathon County

Written by Brad Karger

No other sound around town quite says Christmas like the ringing of a Salvation Army bell. We’ve all seen bell ringers standing next to The Salvation Army’s red kettles in front of department stores . . .

Marathon County Administrator Brad Karger volunteering as a bell ringer for The Salvation Army in December 2018.

Most of us have dropped some coins or bills in the kettle’s center slot, wishing the bell ringer a Merry Christmas on our way in or out of a store.

I bet many of us have even volunteered to be bell ringers ourselves at one time or another for a family, church, school, or community activity.

But what do we really know about the Salvation Army,
and what happens to the Red Kettle donations collected?

I sat down with Lieutenant Donna Thammavongsa and Lieutenant Vatthana Thammavongsa of the Wausau Salvation Army to learn more about the organization and their well-known Red Kettle campaign.

Here are 5 things I bet you didn’t know about The Salvation Army and its Red Kettle campaign in Marathon County . . .


#1. The Salvation Army is a Protestant Christian church.

It’s also an international charitable organization with over 1.5 million members.

We’ve sometimes had Marathon County Department Head meetings at Salvation Army facilities, and our administrative leaders always express surprise that The Salvation Army is primarily a church — not an agency like United Way of Marathon County or a community center like The Neighbors’ Place — though all of these are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations.

Their Mission Statement reads . . .

“The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the Universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.”

I grew up with Catholic traditions, so I don’t know a lot about other churches. What stood out to me are the following three things that seem to differentiate The Salvation Army from other Christian churches:

  • The Salvation Army’s leadership is structured like a military organization — Followers are believed to be soldiers of Christ and are called Salvationists. Their leadership starts at the top with a General, who is located in The Salvation Army’s London headquarters. The General communicates with a Chief of Staff, and orders are followed down a chain of command. The highest-ranking officers at the Salvation Army Center on Callon Street in Wausau are Lieutenants Vatthana and Donna Thammavongsa. She has been a guest at Wausau Rotary Club meetings I’ve attended and suggests that she be called simply Lt. Donna. She and her husband are co-ministers at the Wausau Corps. Lt. Donna primarily handles administrative matters. Lt. Vatthana focuses more on the spiritual component of the church, saying that his life mission is “to love the Lord and serve the people.”
Lts._Vatthana_and_Donna_Thammavongsa - Salvation Army
Lt. Vatthana Thammavongsa and Lt. Donna Thammavongsa of The Salvation Army – Wausau Corps.
  • The Salvation Army does not partake in the sacraments of Baptism or Holy Communion — They believe that Baptism is unnecessary for salvation. Salvation Army Christians do not partake in Communion rituals and instead focus on living a holy life and receiving the grace of God. (Salvationists can be baptized or receive communion in another church if they feel this is right for them as individuals.)
  • The Salvation Army has female ministers — Catherine Booth, co-founder of The Salvation Army (along with her husband William Booth), was a minister herself. During her career, she worked hard to validate the right of women to preach the gospel and to take an equal part in The Salvation Army’s ministry.

#2. The kettle idea for collecting money was started in 1891 in San Francisco, CA, by Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee.

He wanted to collect donations to provide a free Christmas dinner for 1,000 of the poorest people of San Francisco. In developing the Red Kettle idea, Captain McFee thought back to when he was a sailor in Liverpool, England, when on the docks of the city’s waterfront, he remembered seeing a large iron pot into which charitable donations could be thrown.

The rest is history . . .

Captain McFee’s idea launched a tradition that has spread not only throughout the United States, but all across the world. Red Kettle campaigns can be found in countries such as South Korea, Japan, Chile, and many European countries.

Over the years, the kettles have changed from iron to lighter weight metal to plastic, but the look and purpose remain the same . . .


Because The Salvation Army is a Christian church, you’re not likely to see bell ringers on Sunday. They want everyone to have the opportunity to attend worship services on Sundays and to enjoy a day of rest.

#3. The Wausau Salvation Army hopes to raise $170,000 during the 2018 Red Kettle Campaign, which runs from mid-November to December 24.  

Funds raised in each community are dedicated to best serve the people in that same community who are recovering from many kinds of personal disasters.

The success of Red Kettle Campaign depends on the goodwill and charity of Christmas shoppers at physical locations. I’ve been a volunteer bell ringer for the Wausau Salvation Army for 25 years.

Every year but this year, my post has been the same: The Wausau Center parking ramp door outside of Prange’s — and later Younkers — department store.

When I first started, that location was bustling with activity, and I was particularly effective as a fundraiser because I knew the County employees who parked in that ramp and then walked across the street to the Marathon County Courthouse. Many times, just a friendly wave from the boss was enough to convince a County employee to find an extra dollar in his or her pocket and make a donation to the cause.

But times change — and the same online shopping that killed Prange’s and Younkers has now also impacted the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle campaign, since there’s less foot traffic at the mall and other stores around town.

With the closing of Younkers at the Wausau Center mall, my Rotary Club of Wausau team of bell ringers was moved this year to the entrance of Shopko in Wausau.

Carl Drake and Mike Martin ringing bells for The Salvation Army – Wausau Corps.

Throughout the years, I’ve often been told by Christmas shoppers that they’d already given or that they didn’t carry cash. I’m not sure why so many people felt the need to explain themselves to me. As a volunteer bell ringer, I didn’t judge anyone who didn’t contribute . . . I just assumed that they’d already given, couldn’t afford to give, or chose to support some other charity — and I wished them a Merry Christmas all the same.

The Salvation Army must’ve heard similar comments, as now in addition to donating cash or coins, you can text “BELLS” to 91999 to donate.


Or, you can purchase a Salvation Army Season Pass button (available at their 202 Callon St. location). It’s available in increments of $25, $50, or $100. Wearing the button on your coat lets bell ringers know that you’ve already donated to The Salvation Army in Marathon County.


You don’t need to be wearing a Season Pass button to silently walk by my kettle, but if the button encourages you to contribute to a good cause and makes you feel less uneasy as you go by — have at it!

#4: The Salvation Army in Wausau provides much more than meals & shelter.

In addition to providing meals and a homeless shelter for those in needThe Wausau Salvation Army offers a number of local programs and services — funded in large part by your Red Kettle donations:

  • The Angel Tree (providing Christmas gifts for children who would otherwise not receive one)
  • Food pantry
  • Disaster relief
  • Casework services
  • Medical, energy, & rent assistance
  • Character-building programs
  • Youth summer camps
  • Food & nutrition programs
  • . . . and more!

For an idea of how The Salvation Army changes lives right here in Marathon County, Lt. Donna shared with me a story of a family with 2 children (ages 6 and 12) who were homeless and without any sense of direction or belief in themselves. They became involved in a program called Pathway of Hope at The Salvation Army, and now the father is employed as a welder and the mother is a certified nursing assistant. Their financial and spiritual needs are in a much better place, and the family is committed to helping others in our community who are facing similar struggles.

If you’re interested in seeing what The Salvation Army does on a national scale, check out their easy-to-read 2018 Annual Report.

#5: Not all Salvation Army bell ringers are volunteers.

Most are volunteers, but some are paid minimum wage to be bell ringers, most of whom are clients served by The Salvation Army who have income needs, as kettles that go unstaffed produce little or no income.

You can still sign up to be a bell ringer by calling (715-845-4272) or contacting the Wausau Salvation Army and creating an account to access their Volunteer Application.

These days, bell ringers raise an average of $30 per hour in donations.

In just 2 hours of ringing, you could raise enough money to provide a week’s worth of groceries for a family of four!

I can tell you from 25 years of experience, it’s a lot of fun and a great local cause.

If you’d like some pointers, feel free to check out the “How to Be a Bell Ringer” video below.

Now you know 5 things I learned about The Salvation Army and their Red Kettle campaign.


There’s certainly a lot more that could be shared, so if you’re interested, feel free to call (715-845-4272 ext. 102) or visit Lt. Donna at the Wausau Salvation Army — but wait till after Christmas. She and her team are awfully busy right now with the Angel Tree, serving meals, visiting nursing home residents, managing the food pantry, and coordinating this year’s Red Kettle campaign.

Lt. Donna and Lt. Vatthana wish to sincerely thank all those in Marathon County — the bell ringers, donors, and volunteers — who assist The Salvation Army in “Doing the Most Good” year-round.

I already contributed to the Red Kettle campaign, but after talking with Lt. Donna and Lt. Vatthana, I’ve decided to donate another $50. I can see how giving to our local Salvation Army represents a great investment in our community. I hope you’ll do the same.

With all the ways they’ve created for you to donate this year — kettle donation, text donation, season pass, or online donation, it’s EASY.

So, go get your Season Pass button, and wear it with pride!

Lt. Vatthana Thammavongsa, of The Salvation Army – Wausau Corps, with a Salvation Army Season Pass button.

Brad Karger - Marathon County AdministratorBrad Karger

Marathon County Administrator

In his Administrator role, Brad Karger leads an organization with 700+ employees and an annual budget of more than $162 million. Brad has been in leadership positions with Marathon County for the past 30 years. He is known statewide for generating innovative ideas and solutions to problems, openness and transparency, and a commitment to community service that extends well beyond the normal workday.  Email Brad Karger.

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