The Salvation Army is recruiting young volunteers like never before as it works to reshape its public image.
Tyler Schmidt doesn't know it, but he's a trailblazer for the Salvation Army.
Schmidt, a senior at Roseville High School, was among the first to download the nation's first iPhone app recruiting Salvation Army volunteers. Facing 100,000 hours of bell ringing this holiday season and an aging pool of volunteers, the Minnesota Army last month launched the app to recruit a cooler, younger crowd.
Not only could Schmidt sign up from the comfort of his couch, he watched a video on his phone offering such vital teen tips as, "Don't bring your iPod and plug it into speakers."
"I think it's a good idea," said Schmidt on his first day of bell ringing outside Cub Foods. "I always thought you had to work for Salvation Army to do it."
The iPhone app reflects a major national strategy for the 130-year-old charity, which is fighting to reshape its public image from old folks in stodgy uniforms to hip young people in Santa hats.
It's not just bell ringers. The transformation is taking place in Army headquarters across the country, as well as in the volunteer ranks, on Web pages and in social media.
"Ten years ago if I were taking a photo for publication, it would be, 'Let's make sure we have an army officer in there ... and the shield,'" said Annette Bauer, spokesperson for the Salvation Army Northern Division.
"Now it's, 'Do we have anyone with a nose piercing? Or a tattoo?'"
The Salvation Army was widely known to veterans and their families during World Wars I and II, when young "lassies" delivered coffee and doughnuts to soldiers near the front lines. But later generations didn't know what the organization did, said Major George Hood, its national community relations secretary.
As the "greatest generation" and their children pass away, it's critical to recruit a fresh wave of employees, volunteers and eventually donors.
"We lost several generations because we weren't talking to them," said Hood.
"The digital age is here and kids are willing to receive information. It doesn't cross their mind that we're a 150-year-old Victorian organization." And now that the dark blue uniforms are not required, "We've taken away the fear factor," he said.
Next Saturday is the Salvation Army's biggest youth-courting event of the year, the third annual Rock the Kettle concert. The free concert in Los Angeles last year drew 10,000 people. It features Owl City (Owatonna native Adam Young) and other popular musicians who will host their own online kettle campaigns. The concert will be streamed live on the Salvation Army's Facebook page. Supporters will be asked to text donations of $10 or more.
Armed with surveys of how and why 13- to 30-year-olds want to volunteer, Salvation Army groups nationwide have launched other programs. High school students are starting "red kettle clubs" to recruit bell ringers. "Echelon" groups of slightly older youth are getting involved in various volunteer projects. Young professional groups are taking shape, including one formed last year in Minnesota.
Jeff Peterka, one of its leaders, said he was invited to join by a Salvation Army committee member. Peterka had no preconceptions of the group; all he knew was they helped the homeless. So he checked it out, and was hooked.
"I see it as a small start-up," said Peterka, 25, an accountant from Minneapolis. "You want to start a business plan and grow. But we needed to find a niche. The one that struck us was teen homelessness."
So twice a month, he and a group of a dozen or so recent college grads head to a Salvation Army shelter for homeless teens and help them write résumés, learn business etiquette "and other things to help them find jobs," he said. As the group gels, more ideas will be in the works, he said.
Service credits -- and fun
Meanwhile, Minnesota teens such as Schmidt and his classmate Jane Becker, who rang bells with him last week, think they've discovered a great way for high schoolers to earn community service credits needed to graduate.
It helps that the teens aren't required to wear the navy blue uniforms of old -- just red aprons. Last week, they added red Santa hats. They're thinking of coming back, having a bit more fun with their "uniform" and bringing some friends.
Minnesota also has a new "Shield Crew," college students recruited to do random acts of kindness. Their first job was at the State Fair this year, said Bauer. They wear smiles on their faces and bright red T-shirts. But not just any T-shirt.
"It needs to be fitted and it needs to be prewashed," said Bauer with a smile.
Some other glitches come with the youth territory, she said. A group of volunteers were looking for a meeting place, and someone suggested a happy hour.
"That's not exactly Salvation Army," she said.
While it's relatively easy to change clothing rules for staff and volunteers, or to offer rock concerts along with Christian choirs, it's critical not to erode the core values of the organization, said Hood.
"You have to look at what are the sacred cows and what is expendable," he said. "We don't want to be so Victorian that people can no longer relate. But we have to protect who we are."
Even as the Army grapples with maintaining that balance, its leaders say there is no turning back.
"We're already making inroads," said Bauer. "People are talking differently about us. This is going to stick."
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511