Saved by the Bell

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Story by Lehia Apana | Photo by Ben Ferrari

Maui Christmas bell ringerJamie Ko

TITLE: Salvation Army bell ringer

CHEERLEADER: For the past thirty years, Jamie Ko has faithfully donned a red apron and stood watch over his Salvation Army donation kettle. Holiday shoppers at Times Supermarket in Honokowai can’t miss him — his handheld bell rattles like a soundtrack of the season, as he greets passersby with a broad smile and a firm shaka.

“I got the aloha,” beams Jamie. “Even when people ignore me or walk past, I just keep smiling and say ‘Have a nice day!’”

Then there’s the music. Jamie’s soulful leo ki‘eki‘e (Hawaiian falsetto) and holiday classics have become a Christmas tradition.

HOLIDAY HOURS: Despite his sunny attitude, Jamie acknowledges that bell ringing can be taxing. He sits with the kettle twelve to sixteen hours a day, every day except Sunday, from the week before Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve.   

The Salvation Army first began collecting donations in the late 1800s. The red-kettle campaign is the organization’s primary fundraiser, and all Hawai‘i donations go directly to providing meals and shelter for those in need, Christmas gifts for keiki (children) as well as year-round support for Salvation Army programs.

Jamie describes himself as “houseless,” and has been relying on the Salvation Army to fulfill his basic needs. Standing watch over the kettle is his way of saying thank you.

NOT-SO-SILENT NIGHT: “From the time he sits to the time he leaves, that bell is constant. People have even paid him to stop ringing for a little bit,” laughs Kevin Nagasaki, envoy for the Salvation Army Lahaina Lighthouse Corps.

Jamie’s enthusiasm has literally paid off.    

“He’s brought in the most donations of any bell ringers on Maui,” says Kevin, “including those at some of the busier stores like Costco and Walmart. We’re talking about thousands of dollars more than anyone else.”

He adds, “Jamie’s been coming to [The Salvation Army] for a long time. He cannot give us money, so those three months when he can do something in return, he does it wholeheartedly.”

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