Customers dashed in and out of the Safeway near the Waterfront Metro station at a steady clip during Monday’s lunch hour, and every so often, one paused to slip a few bills or coins into the Salvation Army’s familiar red kettle.
“I can afford to give, so I should,” said Diane Jones, who was picking up lunch.
“You have a blessed day,” the bell ringer, Damien Showell, said to Jones and everyone else.
It was a typical December scene on an atypical December day. Showell and his fellow workers were busy trying to make up for a lost weekend after the charity’s office in Anacostia was broken into early Sunday, with an estimated $10,000 taken from a safe and from 11 kettles pried open with a crowbar.
It was all the money collected over three days from bell ringers in parts of Washington, including at the Waterfront, and parts of Maryland. D.C. police are investigating but have made no arrests.
Most of the money stolen was to have been redistributed to needy people in those same neighborhoods — for Christmas presents, help with rent, heating bills and food. “One blemish shouldn’t deter people from giving,” said Maj. Lewis Reckline, the commander of the capital area’s Salvation Army. “I would encourage people to give a little extra now. We’re trying to recover.”
Authorities think one or two men scaled a fence and climbed onto the roof of an adjacent building to get near a back door window, which they broke to get inside. Reckline said it appears they stayed a while, going office to office in the five-story Solomon G. Brown Corps Community Center in the 2300 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.
An organization called So Others Might Eat, which has offices in the community center, also was hit, with two laptop computers, two cameras and $700 in bus tokens taken. The nonprofit agency feeds the homeless and helps people find jobs, and gives new workers the tokens to ensure a ride to work.
“They didn’t take much from us, but it’s unfortunate that people are taking from people who need it most,” said Richard Gerlach, the executive director.
The building’s security guard called D.C. police shortly after 5:30 a.m. A report says he heard a noise and saw a man fleeing with a set of bolt cutters. The guard also told police that the man had threatened him with a knife. Pictures from inside the Salvation Army offices shows that some were ransacked, with broken glass and red kettles and loose change strewn about.
Reckline, a former Baltimore police officer who served a decade in some of the city’s most violent neighborhoods, said two heavy bags of quarters, each totaling about $500, were left behind. He said the safe was locked, but a burglar found the combination on a piece of paper on a desk. The money normally is deposited daily at a bank, but the Thanksgiving holiday upended the schedule, he said.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions,” Reckline said.
Outside the Safeway at Fourth and M streets SW on Monday, Showell had just begun his eight-hour shift ringing the bell and collecting money. Dressed in a Santa-style hat and red overalls emblazoned with the slogan, “Doing the most good,” the 32-year-old Northeast Washington resident said that people wondering whom their money helps need only look at him.
He has five children younger than 14 and said that the Salvation Army helped pay for their Christmas last year. He lost his job at a grocery store, and for now, the only money he makes is tending the kettle.
Showell said most people did not know about the burglary. “It’s like stealing from kids,” he said. “That’s why most of us stand out here all day . . . so the kids can have a Christmas. Whoever did this is real cold. A person without a heart.”
Jones, who dropped some money into the kettle, said, “There was a time in my life that Christmases were tough.” She’s now an executive at a company with offices in Chicago and Washington. “I just hope the person who took the money needs it more than others,” she said.