The Christmas season is probably the most challenging time of the year for many families trying to pay the bills and feed the children and still put some gifts under the tree.

That’s why the Salvation Army rings bells and collects donations in red kettles all across America to help.

Capt. Brett R. Meredith of the Salvation Army of Greater Baton Rouge is challenging the business and higher education community to join them as bell ringers in order to boost donations to help those in need, especially beyond the holidays.

“I’m laying down the gauntlet. We need volunteers and we appreciate the help whether it is a church or a service group or a company,” Meredith said during an interview at the Army’s headquarters at 7361 Airline Highway. “Baton Rouge is a very giving community and we are very grateful for that.”

“Capital One is on our board and they’ve talked about a bank challenge downtown,” he said. “We have two great universities and we are challenging the alumni of LSU and Southern to see who can raise the most money to help the people in need in our community.”

The Salvation Army’s work with the homeless and needy goes beyond the holidays, although that is when they are most visible, Meredith said.

The red kettle program in the nine-parish, Greater Baton Rouge area includes 72 sites being manned from about 10 a.m. to about 8 p.m. by temporary workers being paid $7.25, the minimum wage. While the Salvation Army is grateful to be able to provide the employment — especially at Christmastime, Meredith said — they don’t have enough workers to cover all the sites all the time during the shopping season.

Like all nonprofit groups, the Army depends on its “bottom line,” Meredith said, and if volunteers can increase the bell ringing effort 25 to 50 percent, that should boost the badly needed donations.

In some places the red kettle donations account for up to 70 percent of the local Army’s budget, Meredith said, and for this area it accounts for between 40 to 50 percent.

“The goal for the kettles this year is $475,000 and we are a little bit behind,” he said. “We need folks to be just a little bit more generous to help us meet our goal.”

“Wal-Mart is our anchor and they began the day after Thanksgiving,” Meredith said. Bell ringers and kettles are also at Winn-Dixie, Walgreen’s, Hi Nabor and some other grocery stores, Hobby Lobby, and at the Mall of Louisiana and Cortana Mall.

“We know that to be able to grow the impact of the Salvation Army on the community we need volunteers to do the heavy lifting,” Meredith said.

He cited their recent Thanksgiving dinner where over 800 people were fed.

“Our goal is to feed 2,000 next year. We’re going to find the folks in need and help them,” Meredith said. They also plan to distribute about 500 backpacks of school supplies next fall to area children.

Another Christmas program is the Angel Tree. Shoppers can take an angel from a display tree and buy a gift for the child whose name is on the tag. The Angel Tree will provide gifts for 4,000 to 5,000 children this year, and the Salvation Army would like to expand that next year also, Meredith said.

Salvation Army programs like these are personal for Meredith, who said when he was growing up in Ohio his family was helped by the group. When he and his wife, Mary, were poor, married college students starting a family, “our daughter’s first Christmas was provided by the Salvation Army in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”

The Merediths, who are both ordained and commissioned as a team, have been in the Salvation Army for 12 years and arrived in Baton Rouge last June from Virginia where they last served. He also serves as pastor of the local Salvation Army church, located at 4025 Brookstown Drive, Baton Rouge, and she co-organizes the headquarters offices along with speaking engagements.

Hope Ortego, the Army’s volunteer coordinator, said she was looking forward to enlisting local volunteers.

“It is important for people to volunteer because they are helping their community and their friends and family members who are in need,” Ortego said. “During this special holiday season it is always great to give back to the community you live in.”

Meredith added they are grateful to businesses allowing them to set up the kettles and ring the bells.

“Our 72 kettle sites are there for ministry but we’re not there to preach because we are invited guests in front of businesses — but we are there to share God’s love,” Meredith said. “We want our folks to be gracious — to say ‘God bless you’ and ‘Merry Christmas.’ We want people to see and hear God’s grace from our workers and our volunteers.”

Out in front of the Hobby Lobby store on O’Neal Lane, Willie Bell, 47, dressed sharply in a white shirt and tie featuring a Bible-theme pattern, was ringing a bell and greeting busy shoppers with a big smile and friendly “hello” and “God bless you.” Whenever a child put money in the kettle he’d give them a candy cane.

Dawson Broussard, 5, was leaving the store with his mother, Becky Broussard, of Prairieville, and the youth dropped a few coins into the kettle’s slot.

When asked how giving the money made him feel, Dawson looked up with a smile and said, “Happy.”

“We just like to help people,” Becky Broussard said. As Bell bent down to give Dawson a candy cane he received a polite “thank you” in return.

Formerly of Alexandria, Bell lives in the Army’s Next Step program’s apartments at the Airline headquarters and is enlisted in the “Soldier” program after successfully completing the “Bootstrap” program.

“The Salvation Army helped me out tremendously when I needed it,” Bell said. “Ringing the bells is to me, giving back. I feel joy doing this!”