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Cool sounds for the needy

Former U46 music bteacher Craig JohnsElgwith one brass instruments he's been playing for SalvatiArmy kettle campaign for more than two

Former U46 music and band teacher Craig Johnson of Elgin with one of the brass instruments he's been playing for the Salvation Army kettle campaign for more than two decades. | Janelle Walker for Sun-Times Media.

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Updated: January 14, 2014 12:07PM

ELGIN — Most Saturdays during the Christmas season, Craig Johnson can be found outside a northern Fox Valley store, trombone to lips.

Since 1992, the 68-year-old Elgin resident and a few musical friends have been not just ringing bells for the Salvation Army’s kettle campaign but also playing their tubas, trombones, trumpets and other brass instruments for shoppers.

The former Elgin School District U46 band and music teacher started with a friend and his children, playing outside the downtown Elgin Post Office. Over the years, players have come and gone — some playing while students at Larkin High School, others coming along with their kids, he said.

“It changes, because high school students leave and go to college,” Johnson said. “We have had wonderful kids through Larkin High, but we try to make contact (with players) every way we can — friends of friends of friends.”

Sometimes, someone drops cash into the kettle and notes that a son or daughter plays trumpet. He’ll invite that parent to come back with the child — who often ends up playing with the group.

It isn’t just kids playing.

“There is a group of adults involved. They will be with us for many years,” Johnson said.

It’s not easy, however, to play a brass instrument in the cold, Johnson noted. If the temperature stays above 34 degrees, they can play for a full two-hour shift. But if the temps hit 32 degrees or below, the instruments can freeze up — and so can the performers.

He remembers having to figure out how to play his trombone and carols when the instrument was half-frozen, Johnson laughed.

Last weekend, he almost had to call off the small brass band set to play at Woodman’s grocery in Carpentersville. But the chain’s management insists the Salvation Army bell ringers should be inside store vestibules — meaning the band got to be inside and out of the cold.

Both shoppers and store employees said they enjoyed the live music, Johnson said.

Helping in crisis

But regardless of how cold it might get, Johnson said, he always enjoys the mini-concerts of yuletide music and knows he’s doing something for neighbors facing some sort of crisis.

“The whole Christmas season effort is a win-win-win,” Johnson said. “Customers hear beautiful music that points to Jesus as they walk to the store. They are encouraged to honor Him with generous contributions. The musicians enjoy their music and camaraderie. Needy people are blessed through larger contributions. All customers and store workers are reminded of the Salvation Army’s efforts on behalf of the needy.”

It’s not uncommon for someone dropping money into the kettle to tell the band about how the charity has helped them or a family member in a time of crisis, Johnson said.

It is volunteers such as Johnson who make the kettle campaign successful, said Lt. Mike Hanton of the Elgin Salvation Army.

This year, however, while it has plenty of stores to set up at, donations and bell ringing volunteers are down.

As of this week, the Elgin Salvation Army — which serves an area that stretches from Elgin to Carpentersville to Schaumburg — is down $15,000 from this time last year, Hanton said.

The organization needs to bring in $215,000 in the next two weeks to ensure funding for Elgin-based programming, he said.

Volunteers are needed to make that happen.

“We will take anything — a one- or two-hour block” of bell ringing shifts, he said.

Wednesday through Saturday are the peak times for shoppers — and the peak time for collecting cash and when volunteers are most needed.

He also knows that national attention given to one Salvation Army employee’s anti-gay act may have hurt overall giving this year, Hanton said.

“We have a good track record with the money given to us, and we have integrity,” Hanton said. “All the money we (receive) goes back to the community. We are an evangelical organization, but we do not discriminate to anyone in need … the mission is to serve those that have these needs.”

To volunteer to ring the bell, people should contact the Elgin Salvation Army at 847-741-2304.

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