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Grand Forks Salvation Army says many volunteers cite 1997 flood for volunteering

Dottie and Gary Swanson have been ringing the bell for the Salvation Army since 1997. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Gary and Dottie Swanson must love the sound of ringing bells around Christmas time. For the past 16 years, they've been doing a lot of the ringing for the Salvation Army in Grand Forks.

Gary likes to tell stories about the people they meet, from those who have no change to give who slink by without making eye contact to the little girl who thought his beard made him look like Santa.

But at one time, he and his wife said, they never even noticed the agency, and never would have thought to volunteer. The flood of 1997 changed all that.

The now-retired couple said they still remember how the Salvation Army came by with hot food and cleaning equipment as they cleaned out their flooded basement.

"We still have our Salvation Army buckets," Gary said.

They worked for Grand Forks Public Schools then and, when the group circulated a plea for volunteers among school staff, they responded.

Maj. Jonathan Fjellman, the group's top official here, said he's heard similar stories from many volunteer bell ringers here. "A lot of the ones that ring will say, 'You were there for us, we want to be there for you.'"

Feel-good stories

The Swansons themselves have plenty of stories of people giving back.

In the years after the flood, the Salvation Army would put an enormous kettle in the middle of Columbia Mall during the holiday season, Gary said. "It'd be half-filled by the end of the year."

"A man threw in $20 and said 'They did a lot more for me,'" he said. Another man, he said, came with a brown bag full of change that the man had saved up all year.

So far this year, he said, he's volunteered 14 hours, and most years he does 14 to 18 hours.

Their friend from Sharon Lutheran Church, Lyle Nelson, followed them in their shift last week. He, too, was inspired to volunteer with the Salvation Army because of the flood, when he and his wife lost everything in their basement.

"I just consider it the best local agency we've got," he said.

In fact, his experience with the Salvation Army goes back all the way to the Korean War when the group's volunteers served coffee and doughnuts on his base.

These days in Grand Forks, the group continues to help out at a much lower profile. Last year, it said it provided emergency food for 2,400 and stepped in with rent and utility payments to keep 190 off the street, among other things.

Except for the people helped by the Salvation Army, few notice those kinds of efforts, Fjellman said. It's only in disasters that the group gets much attention, he said.

Fjellman is hard-pressed to identify the proportion of his 800-or-so volunteers who volunteered because of the flood, but he said it's an explanation he has heard many times here in Grand Forks and other places stricken by disaster.

"People will say 'I was once helped by you. I want to return favor,'" he said. "A lot of times they return a lot more than we possibly could have helped."