AS A SALVATION Army bell-ringer, I learned a few things.

I learned not to drink a 16-ounce cup of coffee before my shift, because the time between bathroom breaks best accommodates an 8-ounce cup.

I learned that it's better to hold the bell's handle between your index and middle fingers and shake it briskly as your arm dangles loosely by your side. Hold the bell higher than that and you'll need Bengay later to soothe your achy shoulder.

And I learned that the nicest donors are not necessarily the most nattily dressed ones.

I volunteered to be a bell-ringer because, after a lifetime of seeing the ringers every Christmas season - outside malls, inside Suburban Station, sprinkled like tinsel around supermarket entrances - I finally wondered what it's like to be one.

I'd also heard that overall donations to the local Salvation Army are down by 10 percent this year; kettle cash is down by 12 percent. Also in shorter supply are volunteers to man 185 red kettles in the Delaware Valley.

That's a double-whammy to an organization seeing a 25 percent rise in the number of souls seeking help from the organization during this scary economy.

"The kettles bring in significant money," said Chaz Watson, development director for the Salvation Army's Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware Division.

Last year, he said, the local kettles raised $775,000. Nationally, the kettles added an astounding $139 million to Salvation Army coffers (25 percent of which, incidentally, was collected outside Walmart stores).

"That kind of money can really impact programs," Watson said.

So on a recent Friday, I headed to the wind-blasted corner of 10th and Market streets, outside the Big Kmart, to help the cause.

I was greeted by the friendly Linda Buckery, 63, of South Philly. She works as a blood-donor recruiter for the American Red Cross but makes time each December to man a Salvation Army kettle for several days during the holiday season.

"It makes my Christmas feel complete, like life isn't all about me, me, me," she said as we hung my slotted, locked kettle on its metal tripod, right next to the store's entrance. "If you love people, look them in the face, and smile. When you love people, it begets love, and people are drawn to you."

Yes, but would they show me the money?

Buckery promised to return in an hour so I could grab lunch. Then she scooted to another kettle location three blocks west, to relieve the volunteer there.

Before I began ringing, a nicely dressed passer-by leaned in, mentioned a nearby methadone clinic and clucked sympathetically.

"You'd think the Salvation Army would've set you up at a better location," he said sourly. "A lot of addicts come by here."

"Do they cause trouble?" I asked.

"You never know," he warned.

"Well, as long as you're here, would you like to make a donation?" I asked.

"Not really," he said brusquely.

"Scrooge, you," I muttered as he trotted off. But I soon got my joy on - ringing, smiling and calling "Good morning!" in a way I hoped lifted the windchill temperature above freezing.

It worked.

Harried-looking shoppers actually stopped to juggle multiple bags to dig into pockets for loose change or spare bills.

Mothers gave their toddlers coins to donate. In reward, I let the kids - even the sniffling, coughing ones - ring the bell.

And, you know those recovering addicts whom Scrooge warned me about? They were the most prolific donors of all - for good reason, it turned out.

"The Salvation Army saved my life" a few years ago, said a father named Miguel, who received food and shelter from the Salvation Army during his dark days on the street. "They're good people."

Another woman stuffed two $20 bills into the kettle and, without elaborating, said, "I can never repay the Salvation Army for what they did for me."

Time and again, while well-dressed pedestrians averted their eyes as they passed my kettle, less-prosperous-looking men and women stopped to donate, often offering thanks for the Salvation Army's services.

"We've found that you can't tie generosity to a person's economic straits," development director Watson told me later.

I wasn't able to determine how much money my four-hour stint netted, since Buckery took over my kettle when my shift ended. But Watson told me that, at the end of each day, the kettle money is deposited directly into the bank account of the corps center located in that site's ZIP code (the Salvation Army offers services in every ZIP code in the U.S.).

"So it gets put to immediate use," he said.

I loved my stint. But I regret that I didn't sing, dance, play music or otherwise entertain passers-by, since Watson said such antics can fatten donations.

Next year, I'll know better.

Wanna help? Volunteer bell-ringers are needed through Christmas Eve. To help, call the Salvation Army at 215-787-2800.

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns: