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Side of Ranch

Lakewood Ranch volunteers give a new ring to exit strategy

Salvation Army volunteers have fun while ringing the bell at a Publix location in Lakewood Ranch.

Lakewood Ranch's Mark and Jane Imperiale have assembled a group of more than 50 bell ringers for the Salvation Army.
Lakewood Ranch's Mark and Jane Imperiale have assembled a group of more than 50 bell ringers for the Salvation Army.
Courtesy photo
  • East County
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I hate to admit it, but yes, I have, at times, used the grocery store escape strategy.

You might have employed it as well. You know the one, where you approach the exit doors (those, by the way, are the ones marked EXIT), and find the Girl Scouts are selling cookies, the Little Leaguers are collecting for new uniforms, or the American Legion members are taking donations in exchange for those paper poppies.

All are wonderful causes, and all are more than deserving of a couple of bucks.

And yet, at times you feel like the IRS is waiting with an auditor and handcuffs. Let me out of here.

You check all the exits. Perhaps the nonprofit doesn’t have enough bodies to cover all the doors? You swerve to the left, and head for an opening like an NFL running back. But, wait. A 7-year-old girl dressed in Scouting green cuts you off.

Holy pigtails.

It becomes time for Plan B — avoid eye contact at all costs.

You stare at your receipt to make sure you weren’t overcharged for lettuce. You lock your eyes on the sky to see if it’s going to rain. You stare into your cellphone like you’re expecting a call from the president (OK, everyone does that one anyway).

It all works so well, too, until a 6-year-old dressed as a soccer goalie asks, “Can you help us to get to camp?”

Go ahead, kid, try to melt my frozen food section heart. It ain’t gonna work because I gave on the way into the store.

You head at breakneck speed toward the car, and look back expecting to hear a chorus of “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”

Instead, all you hear is “Thank you, have a great day!”

Shame, guilt. Why didn’t I just give a darned dollar?

You picture that kid crying because he can’t go to camp. Little Leaguers have to play in their bluejeans. Girl Scouts get cavities because they need to eat all the cookies they couldn’t sell.

Those of you who share my shame, well, we all have another opportunity. It’s the holiday season, for goodness sakes, and the Salvation Army’s Red Kettle Campaign bell ringers are everywhere.

CNN Money reports that the Salvation Army raised $540 million overall in 2021, and about 82% of that goes to those in need. When disasters, such as Hurricane Ian, hit, then almost 100% of donations go to those affected.

Here in Lakewood Ranch, Jane Imperiale was so impressed by the Salvation Army’s humanitarianism, she decided to organize a group of volunteer bell ringers out of the Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club in 2019.

That first year, she convinced seven of her friends, all women, to join her. They worked four-hour shifts and learned that was a bit long.

Now her group has 32 women volunteers and they work two-hour shifts. Plus, her husband, Mark, became involved, and he organized 19 of his friends to ring bells.

All of this ding-dong activity occurs in front of the Publix at University Parkway and Lorraine Road.

Now in their fourth year, Imperiale discusses strategy with her fellow volunteers, especially because they understand people might not donate today, but maybe they will tomorrow.

“We say, ‘Smile a lot, and if people try to avoid you, let them,’” she said. “If people give a dollar, or 50 cents, we are delighted.”

If you are feeling a little Scrooge-like, Imperiale suggests you might visit the Salvation Army office on State Road 70, just west of US 301. Before Christmas, they host an Angel Tree where those in need can bring their children to get gifts. It just might make you slow down going out those grocery store exit doors.

Imperiale said her volunteer group grows every holiday season because they all experience the feel-good factor of helping others.

“Those of us living in Lakewood Ranch, we feel lucky to do what we do,” she said.

She continues to seek new members for her group, which right now covers Mondays and Thursdays at Publix. She would like to add another day to their assignments or perhaps cover another store.

I asked Imperiale if she recognizes right away which customers are trying to avoid them?

“Well, you know there’s the frazzled mother with three kids,” she said with a laugh. “But there really is no rhyme or reason. The guy who avoids you could be the guy in the Bentley. And, of course, you do see people avoiding eye contact, but that is why we dress so brightly.”

The bottom line is that those living in the Lakewood Ranch area do give. On Dec. 5, bell ringers from her group — all pickleball players at the Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club — collected $1,533.

They laughed all day.

Imperiale makes sure all the bell ringers work in pairs or even threes. She figures if everyone is having a good time, they will keep coming back to volunteer.

I didn’t ask her if she was recruiting more manpower to guard the exits.

Besides the bright clothes, her volunteers bring their own music so they can draw attention to the effort without having to stare shoppers down. One volunteer plays the guitar while collecting.

The Lakewood Ranch Country Club volunteers have a healthy competition between the girls and guys groups. Imperiale said the women have won every time.

Any other advice for bell ringers?

“Don’t talk politics,” Imperiale said.

If you would like to join the Lakewood Ranch group, you can contact Imperiale at [email protected].

It would beat that feeling, of driving away from the grocery store with that dollar still in your pocket.

I know.



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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