Volunteer Dale Campbell rings the bell for the Salvation Army outside of the Marden's store in Houlton Thursday morning. The Red Kettle campaign is seeking to collect $55,000 to aid people this year, Dec. 9, 2022. Credit: Joseph Cyr / Houlton Pioneer Times

HOULTON, Maine — The sound is synonymous with the holiday season — a soft, high-pitched tinkle that permeates parking lots and storefronts this time of year.

It is the sound from a small bell being rung by Salvation Army volunteers during the annual Red Kettle campaign, raising money to help people pay for fuel and utilities during the winter.

But this year, that help is not stretching far enough.

Skyrocketing heating fuel prices and rising electricity costs are leaving many wondering how they will be able to heat their homes this season. That question also weighs heavily on the mind of Pastor Frank Nataluk, envoy for the Houlton Salvation Army.

“Oil prices have us extremely concerned right now,” Nataluk said. “We are seeing the Lord bless us with warmer weather so far, but we are still getting regular calls from people asking for help.”

Requests for assistance seem to focus on heat and electricity costs specifically, and more than in previous years. And the amount of help the Salvation Army is able to give simply is not going as far as it did a year ago.

At current oil prices, the Salvation Army has only been able to award 50 gallons of heating fuel to families at a time, which doesn’t go very far. At nearly $6 a gallon, even that small amount adds up to about $300 per family, twice what they were paying for that much oil last year.

Nataluk said in some cases, he has offered to purchase energy-efficient, electric heaters for families instead of oil, since the heaters can provide warmth at a reasonable price in the greater Houlton area.

“A lot of the people we see asking for help are those who are in between,” he said. “They are people we commonly refer to as the working poor. They are people who are trying their best to make ends meet but just can’t. Right now, they are saying they don’t know how they are going to make it through the winter.”

That is where the money donated to the Salvation Army’s Red Kettles comes into play. The Red Kettle campaign, which traditionally runs from the week before Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, has a goal in Aroostook County this year of $55,000, which is the same it set last year. Last season, the Salvation Army raised about $58,000 from its kettles.

Although people think the Red Kettle campaign still raises money for Christmas presents, donations are used nowadays to help people with fuel and utility bills. Aid to families who cannot afford Christmas presents comes through “Angel Trees,” which are decorated with tags listing wishes or needs of children and adults, such as a new coat or bicycle. Those trees can be found inside Marden’s and Walmart stores in Aroostook County.

But the need is not just in Aroostook. The Salvation Army of Greater Bangor is also being hit with increased requests.

“The Salvation Army of Greater Bangor is committed to providing service and love to those in need this Christmas and beyond, especially during a time when 61 percent of Americans —roughly 157 million adults — live paycheck to paycheck and even more struggle with inflation that is up 8.3 percent since last year, with increases looming,” said Major Stephanie Thompson of the Bangor branch.

Additionally, The Salvation Army is not immune to rising costs, she said, citing increases in utility costs in Maine of 49 percent, with another 40 percent increase expected in Bangor. Expenses to shelter and feed the most vulnerable have increased due to inflation and supply chain issues, she said.

This season alone, The Salvation Army of Bangor has provided five nights of shelter to people experiencing homelessness and $17,000 in rent and utility assistance in addition to 3,500 meals.

Aside from donations, the Salvation Army also lacks enough volunteers to staff the Red Kettle program in Aroostook County, Nataluk said. Anyone that is interested in volunteering their time in Aroostook is encouraged to contact the Houlton Salvation Army at 207-532-2322. There’s an online form for people who want to volunteer in Bangor by visiting The Salvation Army’s website.

In Aroostook County, Red Kettles can be found outside Marden’s and Walmart stores, as well as most grocery stores in Houlton, Presque Isle and Caribou.

There are nine Salvation Army Corps (facilities) in Maine that offer services and programs for children, adults and seniors. They are Bangor, Capital Region (Augusta and Waterville communities), Brunswick, Lewiston, Old Orchard Beach, Portland, Rockland, Sanford and Houlton (Aroostook County).

The Salvation Army also serves those in need in 91 other communities through volunteers at its service units.