No doubt, you noticed it. Going in and out of so many local stores. No bell ringing with holiday wishes and a smile from the ringers, as your change dropped in that Red Kettle.

The virus kept those bells quiet. But it could not stop the Salvation Army’s efforts to help Langlade County. The Red Kettle campaign marched on.

The campaign has raised just over $63,000 toward the annual $100,000 goal, but things are not quite over. Collections for this year continue through the end of January, as people can still donate through the mail. Those ubiquitous kettles, however, were leaving their store and business holiday homes by the end of last week.

Langlade County Salvation Army volunteer coordinator Cavan Kelly said every year he is impressed by local generosity.

“How grateful we are to this community. We always stress that 86 cents of every dollar collected stays right here in Langlade County to help your friends, your neighbors, that need that hand up,” Kelly said. “I never say hand out. It’s a hand up, to help you get through a rough patch, to be able to move on and it’s amazing how many people who have gotten that hand up in the past, when their situations change they turn around and give it back so the next person gets that opportunity.”

The previous six years the kettle campaign has achieved the $100,000 plateau. Due to the pandemic, this year Kelly made the difficult decision not to have bell ringers out in the community. Many of those regular ringers fall into the high risk demographic for COVID due to age.

“It was my choice not to have manned ringing stations, for my ringers’ safety, for the public’s safety, and the safety of my family here at home,” he said. “I firmly believe I made the right move, as high as the incidents have been of COVID in the county, that could have contributed to the spread.”

Kelly attributes the majority of this year’s fundraising shortfall to that decision not to ring the bells, but he also said the discrepancy could have been much more significant if not for, again, the generosity of the county’s citizens and businesses.

“I wasn’t sure we’d even get this high (in donations). Once again this community has shown me how really caring and giving they are, the mail in checks have been steady and they’ve been substantial, from businesses, organizations and individuals,” he said.

“The majority of the shortfall is direct impact of not having bell ringers, if not all of it. There is that real sense of giving, when people hear that bell or they see somebody at a station, they are going to pull out either the change in their pocket, or a couple dollar bills, either on their way in or out of the store.”

Previous years’ kettle campaign efforts have shown that it’s not just the kettles themselves, but the bell ringers that make the difference. A kettle having a person ringing a bell compared to an unmanned kettle typically sees a remarkable difference of $40-$80 per hour.

The Salvation Army’s fundraising calendar year ends on Feb. 1, but the effort never ends. Kelly will immediately turn his attention to a new year of the work, saying that some organizations and individuals donate monthly.

The Salvation Army does not distribute funds directly; rather, those in need are helped through vouchers from local organizations such as AVAIL, Faith United Church of Christ, even the Antigo Police Department.

“Faith United has vouchers to help people with medications, or a gas voucher for veterans who may have an appointment at the VA in Madison or Iron Mountain,” Kelly offers as an example. “AVAIL can offer heating assistance. The police department has vouchers that can help with some transient issues, if someone is coming through town and their vehicle breaks down, they have no place for the night. We don’t want them sleeping in a cold car in the winter, or maybe they just need some gas to get helped down the road.”

These types of “hands up” helped more than 350 families last year.

Because there were no bell ringing volunteers, another annual tradition that will be missed this year is the end-of-campaign banquet and volunteer awards.

Individual donors will receive a personalized letter of thanks, and participating businesses will get certificates. The most generous local businesses this year, and nearly every year, are Brickners of Antigo, Parsons of Antigo, Antigo Bakery and Schroeder’s Gifts.

Lakeside Pharmacy and Grocery will receive a special certificate of recognition due to its longstanding and consistent contributions.

“Since before my father took over the program, they (Lakeside) were the first place in town that had a kettle,” Kelly said. “They’ve done matches every year for 20 years, not just kettles, but also an opportunity to give your donation right at the register.”

Kelly notes that an impressive $3,700 came through those Lakeside registers this year. Lakeside also collects coats for the Salvation Army to bring to the Clothes Closet, a local partnership to keep the community warm.

Along with businesses and individuals, local churches have been a big part of the campaign. Calvary Lutheran Church even earned itself a Gold Kettle after overflowing their first regular sized option.

“Calvary called me at the beginning of the season and wanted to put a kettle in their narthex and announce it during services, so people could go ahead an donate,” Kelly said. “So we brought them a kettle, couple weeks later they called and said, ‘That kettle is full. Can we get another?’ so that’s where the gold kettle came in, a recognition of the effort they’ve gone through. There was over $500 in that first kettle, including a donation collected by youth of the church.”

The Salvation Army’s summer campaign remains up in the air, waiting to see how the pandemic and vaccination process unfolds. The previous two years, Kelly has operated “Christmas in July,” when kettles have gone back out and Santa has been spotted around town clad in shorts and enjoying a wading pool.

“If we have reached a point with the vaccination process and people are comfortable with having kettles in the business, I definitely plan on that, and of course by next ringing season we are hoping we can have manned kettles, really be back to a semblance of normalcy,” Kelly said. “Not only is it better for the Salvation Army to have kettles out, it’s better for the community, having that sense of normalcy.”

Kelly also extended thanks to Antigo’s downtown Sign Park, which donates the large billboard every December.

“That is such a big help. It keeps us visible in the community. People see that sign every day when they are driving around town, and it keeps us in their minds,” he said.