The sound of Bobbi O’Mara’s small silver bell rang across the Wal-Mart parking lot Dec. 15.
Bundled against the cold in a big red coat and blue ear muffs, the 80-year-old volunteer merrily greeted shoppers as they came and went.
“I wish I had a little larger bell,” O’Mara said, adding with a chuckle, “this one doesn’t really ring, it just sort of tinkles.”
Clad in red pants and a red apron sporting the Salvation Army logo, O’Mara was hard to miss with her bell and donation kettle, but it wasn’t her attire people seemed to notice most. It was her holiday spirit and ear-to-ear smile, contrasting sharply against the frigid afternoon.
“Thank you very much, sir,” O’Mara told a donor as he slipped a bill in the donation kettle. “You are a scholar and gentleman.”
She did not reserve her holiday spirit for donors. As people approached the entrance, O’Mara joyfully engaged them with a nod or a brief comment — not a conversation starter or an attempt to solicit charity, but something warm and cheerful they could take or leave at their will.
Having dedicated most of her life to serving people either as a police officer or through Albany County School District No. 1, O’Mara said volunteering with the Salvation Army came naturally.
“For me, it really started in 2005 when I went down to Louisiana during the Hurricane Katrina clean-up effort,” she said. “The Salvation Army did everything they could to help. They set up kitchens. They set up clothing closets. They even helped pull bodies from the water. I was really impressed.”
About four years ago, O’Mara started collecting donations during the holidays for the Salvation Army, she said.
“What compels me to come out and do this each year is the joy of the season, the people, the smiling faces,” O’Mara said as her face flushed with color. “I just enjoy it.”
Volunteers like O’Mara collect donations during the holiday season to help the Salvation Army assist people in need throughout the year, said Marian Paxton, the organization’s committee chair for Laramie.
“The money is used to help people with utilities, rents, motel bills — anything that is an emergency,” Paxton said. “This is our main fundraising event for the year.”
Of the funds raised through donations collected by volunteers at locations such as Safeway, 554 N. Third St., Wal-Mart, 4308 Grand Ave., and the U.S. Post Office, 152 N. Fifth St., she said 90 percent stays within the community to help people regardless of race, gender or creed.
“The Salvation Army is for everyone,” Paxton said. “We do whatever we can to help people in emergencies.”
After Laramie’s Salvation Army Thrift Store closed in 2016, she said there was about a six month timeframe when Laramie lacked a representative from the organization. But Paxton and a handful of volunteers revived the Salvation Army’s presence just before the 2016 holiday season, and volunteers like O’Mara helped raise about $7,000 for 2017.
“Last year, we were so green at it that we didn’t do a very good job,” Paxton said. “We got started earlier this year, getting publicity out for people to ring.”
As of press time Thursday, 100 individuals, many representing organizations from around Laramie, registered to ring bells locally for the Salvation Army’s 2017 Kettle Campaign, Salvation Army volunteer Sasha Schlump says in an email.
In front of the Wal-Mart Home and Pharmacy entrance, O’Mara’s little bell tinkled joyfully as she hummed Christmas carols and moved her feet to the rhythm.
“I’ve been out here ringing bells about three times this year,” O’Mara said. “I ring for about two hours at a time, and I go wherever they need me. Sometimes, a volunteer doesn’t show up for whatever reason, so they give me a call, and I come and fill in.”
Founded in 1865 by William Booth as a means to help impoverished people throughout London, the Salvation Army was first known as the Christian Mission, according to the documents provided by the organization.
“They don’t ask for themselves, but to give to others,” O’Mara said. “Soup, soap and salvation — that was (Booth’s) mission.”
While she volunteers with several other organizations in Laramie, O’Mara said ringing a bell at Christmas has a special place in her heart.
“This is the most giving town I’ve ever seen,” O’Mara said as a young girl dropped some change into the donation kettle. “People give when they don’t have much, and they give it when they do.”