A few years ago, wads of cash started to pop up in red Salvation Army kettles in Minnesota.
And those wads of cash all looked the same, Julie Borgen said.
“Starting in 2011, we were getting donations in our kettles, which were a bundle of 10 crisp, new $100 bills,” Borgen told The Washington Post on Thursday. “And over the past several years, that tradition has continued.”
In fact, the local Salvation Army believes that by now the donations have totaled more than $90,000. And through it all, the donor has also continued to remain anonymous, choosing to slip his or her gifts in the kettle instead of attaching a name to them, said Borgen, the media relations director for the Salvation Army Northern Division.
Whoever they are, though, at least they have a cool nickname: “St. Grand.”
“We love it. We think it’s a lot of fun. We always want to honor our donors’ wishes, so we’ve had a lot of people ask us, ‘Could we figure out who it is?’ And our response to that is always, ‘If this person wants to be anonymous, that’s great with us and we respect that. We just greatly appreciate the donation,’” Borgen said. “But it’s kind of fun. Because it’s always a little bit of a surprise.”
In 2015, St. Grand’s donation amount increased, to 11 $100 bills at a time, Borgen said.
The number went up again this year: The Salvation Army has received five $1,200 donations in the Twin Cities area, plus one of $1,000, in crisp $100s.
It’s hard to tell if that $1,000 donation was from St. Grand, or perhaps from a copycat philanthropist, Borgen said.
“We really don’t know that they’re all the same person,” Borgen said. “We’re assuming it probably is because the method of giving is similar. It’s very possible that someone else thought the idea was great and jumped in and did it as well.”
The red kettle tradition dates to the 1890s, when Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee “was distraught because so many poor individuals in San Francisco were going hungry,” according to the group, which was founded by a Methodist minister and is one of the largest charitable organizations in the United States.
“During the holiday season, he resolved to provide a free Christmas dinner for the destitute and poverty-stricken. He only had one major hurdle to overcome — funding the project.”
Where would the money come from, he wondered. He lay awake nights, worrying, thinking, praying about how he could find the funds to fulfill his commitment of feeding 1,000 of the city’s poorest individuals on Christmas Day. As he pondered the issue, his thoughts drifted back to his sailor days in Liverpool, England. He remembered how at Stage Landing, where the boats came in, there was a large, iron kettle called “Simpson’s Pot” into which passersby tossed a coin or two to help the poor.
The next day Captain McFee placed a similar pot at the Oakland Ferry Landing at the foot of Market Street. Beside the pot, he placed a sign that read, “Keep the Pot Boiling.” He soon had the money to see that the needy people were properly fed at Christmas.
The idea moved east, to Boston, then New York, and eventually went international.
Now, as The Post’s Abby Phillip once noted, “the Salvation Army’s bell-ringing foot soldiers are virtually synonymous with the holiday season.”
Contributions to the kettles — which number in the millions each year — “enable the organization to continue its year-round efforts at helping those who would otherwise be forgotten,” the Salvation Army says.
Kettles are locked and marked with a number that indicates the location they came from, Borgen said. At the end of the bell-ringing day, staffers collect the kettles, which are taken to a secure facility. Volunteers open the kettles and count all the money every night.
“And so what they have discovered, these particular donations, the reasons they stand out, is because the money’s all bundled together, so it comes in one bundle into the kettle,” she said. “So as they’re counting through, they’ll find this pack of $100 bills.”
That’s what happened to Kathie Poppen, who was sorting through a large donation bag in December 2015. She and her husband are volunteers for the Salvation Army in the Twin Cities, and have been for years.
Poppen was working in the secure counting location when she noticed something at the bottom of a large bag. She pulled out the bills and began to sift through them, and realized one looked like a $100.
“And when I pulled it out, I went, ‘No, it’s more than a $100 bill,’” she said. “And as I was going through it, I went, ‘Oh, my gosh, there are 11 of these $100 bills.’”
Volunteers who sort the bills very rarely find $100s, Poppen said; it’s mostly just $1s and $20s.
So as Poppen was counting and got to about the third $100, she knew something was up.
“I sort of elbowed my husband, who was sitting next to me, and I went, ‘Arlyn, look at this,’” she said. “And as I started to count, he goes, ‘Yeah, Kath, I think you got 11 of ’em.’”
The find, Poppen said, made her feel lucky herself.
“It’s pretty special when you find one,” Poppen said.
Last year, NBC News carried a report on gold coins that wound up in red kettles Gettysburg, Pa. For years, the identity of the donors remained a secret.
“It felt real good, because a day later or two days later, it was in the paper, so that made you feel good because somebody was making something of it,” Dick Unger — the man who made the donations, along with his wife — told NBC News in 2015.
The network reported that the Ungers eventually told their secret to a local Salvation Army kettle coordinator, C.K. “Kib” Roulette.
“We kept it a secret for quite a while, until it became difficult. People in the newspaper and so on, they knew that we had to know who it was. And we kept saying we didn’t. And that charade went on to the point of ridiculousness,” Roulette told NBC News.
Their secret was revealed a few years ago. The Ungers kept making donations, NBC reported, just not with gold coins.
Last year, the Salvation Army Northern Division provided 772,000 hot meals, 382,000 housing stays, 186,000 bags of groceries, 204,000 items of clothing and 149,000 Christmas toys in Minnesota and North Dakota, according to its yearly summary.
In the Twin Cities, the Salvation Army’s 2016 Christmas Campaign had raised $3.8 million through Dec. 14, via red kettles, online donations and money given through other sources, according to the organization. Another $2.8 million was collected in the rest of the state plus North Dakota through Dec. 12, according to the Salvation Army Northern Division, which noted that Christmas donations account for about one-third of group’s total annual budget.
Poppen, the volunteer, admitted that it’s hard to think that someone doesn’t already know St. Grand’s identity. After all, she said, this person is visiting a bank and pulling out loads of money, all in $100 bills. That’s not something that would go unnoticed, she said.
“I don’t think I would like to know,” Poppen said. “I think that secrecy, that’s their decision. And they are entitled to keep that.”