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As a Ringer, She’s a Humdinger : Charity: Salvation Army bell ringers herald the Christmas season of giving, and Connie Carreon’s bell rings the loudest. Last year she raised $8,000.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Connie Carreon rings her bell, people listen.

The good news for the Salvation Army is, they also give.

Carreon, described by South Bay Salvation Army officials as their champion “kettler,” routinely collects double the donations of her fellow bell ringers during the organization’s annual Christmas fund-raising drive. Last year, she raised a record $8,000 for the group’s Torrance Corps.

Unlike her sometimes stony-faced counterparts, Carreon, 45, sparkles with holiday cheer at the entrance of a Toys R Us in Torrance. In her wire-rim glasses, red sweat suit and sneakers, she is the very model of a modern Mrs. Santa Claus.

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To avoid throwing out her back, Carreon plants herself in an office chair, energetically ringing her bell, bobbing her head and stomping her feet to Christmas music piping from a portable tape player.

And every child who ventures for a closer look, even those who come empty-handed, receives a hug from her hand-held puppet.

“So many of them (Salvation Army bell ringers) just stand there, but she’s such a cheerful little lady, you can’t resist her,” said Grace Hilliard, 68, of Lomita. “I was out here Saturday doing some Christmas shopping for the kids and found I couldn’t go by her” without donating to her kettle.

Hilliard’s generosity is precisely the reaction Carreon hopes to inspire.

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“I always have a full kettle no matter where I go,” Carreon says with pride. “It just makes me happy. I love people. I love children and I love collecting money for people (who) need it.”

The Salvation Army is a 126-year-old Christian religious and charitable organization with 1.5 million members worldwide who organize themselves along quasi-military lines. Last year, it raised $658 million in private donations--more than any other charity in the nation--to feed, house and clothe the poor.

The holiday bell-ringing tradition, “the heart and soul” of the group’s fund-raising efforts, started 100 years ago in San Francisco as a way to gather donations to feed widows and orphans at Christmas, said Lt. Kenneth Hodder, commanding officer of the Salvation Army’s Torrance Corps.

Although the money raised by the bell ringers goes toward all of the Salvation Army’s causes, more than half of it pays for Christmas food baskets and toys for needy families.

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Carreon became a soldier of the Salvation Army six years ago while she was living in Stockton. That year, she and her husband, a fruit inspector, were having trouble making ends meet. They came to the Salvation Army for groceries for themselves and their two children.

When asked if she wanted to join the ranks of the nation’s 60,000 bell ringers, Carreon jumped at the opportunity. The job, which pays $4.25 an hour and typically lasts about a month, would not only help supplement her family’s income but also would help repay the debt she felt she owed.

Her first year as a kettler, she took the standard course, standing in uniform in front of a Stockton store seeking donations. But the following year, she decided to try something different.

“I told them I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite wearing a uniform when I really want to do it this way,” Carreon said. After some initial hesitation, her commanding officer agreed, and a legend was born.

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After Carreon and her family moved to Torrance two years ago, she became one of the Torrance Corps’ 20 kettlers who raised $38,000 last year.

“She has a heart for people that is as big as a house,” Hodder said. “She really throws herself into it wholeheartedly. I have no doubt that she’s one of the most effective (bell ringers) that we have.”

The job, however, has its hazards.

Last year, Carreon was kicked in the shin by a 3-year-old who saw her squeezing the air out of an inflatable reindeer.

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“ ‘You’re a mean old Santa, you’re killing Rudolph,’ he told me,” Carreon said. “I tried to explain to him this is not a real Rudolph but he didn’t understand. He got real mad.”

She also has been accosted by drunks and once sprained her ankle dancing a jig for a man who promised to put $20 in her kettle. Her vigorous foot tapping tends to wear holes in her sneakers, and she has to buy new batteries for her boom box every two days.

“People tell me, ‘How can you be smiling all the time? How can you be so happy?’ ” said Carreon, who prides herself on never taking a break while on duty. “And I say, ‘It’s people like you putting money in my kettle who make me happy.’ ”

The size of the donation doesn’t matter. She receives pennies and $100 checks with the same cheery “Merry Christmas!”

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Though scrupulously honest about her donations, there was one time she was tempted to keep a little extra for herself.

It happened last year while she was working outside a Target store in Torrance. A man who had just put $10 in her kettle told her how much he admired her work and said he wanted to do something to help her personally.

“He said ‘I’ve been watching you, and, honey, you work so hard. I’ve put money in your kettle before and I just put in another $10. But I want you to keep this $20 for yourself,’ ” Carreon said.

Feeling uneasy, she graciously accepted the cash and then looked up to the sky to pray.

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“I said ‘Lord, this is nice, but I have a roof over my head and I know there are people who need it more than I do.’ ”

And as soon as the man was out of sight, she dropped the bill into her bucket.

The Salvation Army

* Employs 60,000 bell ringers nationwide to collect donations each holiday season.

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* Raised $658 million in 1990, the largest amount received by a U.S. charity that year.

* Pays for programs that feed, clothe and shelter the poor, as well as food baskets and toys for needy children.

* Torrance Corps raised $38,000 last year, much of which helped buy food baskets and toys for 250 local families.


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