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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We head west now, out of the snow to California. We're going to introduce you to some Salvation Army bell ringers. The ringers and their iconic red kettles have been a familiar holiday sight for more than 120 years. In the past, they were primarily volunteers. But today, it's a temporary paying job for some and a life saver.

Gloria Hillard brings us the story of two first-time bell ringers.

GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: As a child Lynn Smith remembers thinking the Salvation Army bell ringers were Santa's helpers. She certainly never thought that one day, a child might be giving her a second look, this cheery woman with a sparkly scarf and white gloves, bell in hand.

LYNN SMITH: Oh, hi. Merry Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Merry Christmas.

SMITH: Thank you.

HILLARD: Since just before Thanksgiving, this spot in front of a Von's grocery store in Ventura, California, has been the 58-year-old first-time bell ringer's window on the world.

SMITH: The hard part is knowing how much households are hurting when you see that the number one item in grocery carts is bottled water and toilet paper. And it's hard to see people with children and no shoes on their feet - little toddlers.

HILLARD: She has befriended the homeless and the well-heeled. She has a smile for every passerby, even those who don't return it. But the woman behind the kettle has no judgment.

SMITH: No, you can't. You have no idea what's going on in their life.

HILLARD: What recently happened in her life, she shares next.

SMITH: We would find ourselves deplete of our retirement. The IRA is gone and we were facing - how do we pay the electric bill for December? Will we even have a cell phone? We cut the landline. We cut the television. We cut the cable.

HILLARD: That's when she and her husband, Rusty Smith, an out of work electronics engineer, applied for jobs as bell ringers.

RUSTY SMITH: You guys have a nice Christmas. Merry Christmas.

HILLARD: They work eight-hours a day for minimum wage.

SMITH: When this job came up, I didn't know I would have the strength. It wasn't a matter of willingness. Could I go wrangle shopping carts at the local grocery store? I didn't think I could. Now I'm pretty sure I could.

HILLARD: And from his spot in front of Macy's, Smith has gotten to know some of the town's people a little better.

SMITH: You might have seen them for years. You might have known them for years and not known what their story was. I think it's given me a broader view than I ever could've gotten any other way.

HILLARD: Rusty and Lynn Smith will be working right up through Christmas Eve.

SMITH: I have my red lipstick, hot water to keep the voice going, Kleenex to stop the nose from going.

HILLARD: Many of the shoppers reaching for change in their pocket or for a dollar bill from a wallet, stop to talk with Smith in her bright red sweatshirt. There was the attorney who was helped by the Salvation Army when she was younger, a mother whose son is coming home from Iraq.

SMITH: And people apologizing that they don't have more to give. And I try to stop and say that every penny helps, every penny, every hand, every heart helping others. If we carry this on, we'll make it through whatever time brings us.

HILLARD: The Smith's don't know what the day after Christmas will bring for them, but they say they've already received their gift.

SMITH: Merry Christmas, thank you.

HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

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