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Those red kettles can be pots with gold.

For some Salvation Army Santas, it's 'Ho, ho . . . whoa!'

TAMPA, Fla. - A volunteer emptying Salvation Army kettles in southwest Florida this month came across something that stood out from the piles of spare change and crumpled up bills: a 1911 Liberty Eagle gold coin worth around $1,000.

The person who quietly deposited it outside a Fort Myers supermarket continued a holiday tradition of using the iconic red pots to make valuable and unusual donations to the charity.

"It's a welcome gift, believe me," said Maj. George Hood, a national spokesman for the charity, which has seen total donations drop around 25 percent in the tough economy.

People might be plunking in less loose change this season, but the Salvation Army is still coming across exotic kettle donations.

This month, a rare 1910 gold coin worth thousands was dropped into a kettle in Berlin, Vt. Someone in Uniontown, Pa., deposited a diamond ring worth about $2,000.

And every holiday season for the last seven years, someone has dropped a Krugerrand, a gold coin from South Africa, into a kettle in Waterloo, Iowa. The one left recently was valued at $678, Hood said.

Nationally, the Salvation Army collects about $118 million a year from its 25,000 red kettles.

As far as the charity knows, the first time a valuable coin was dropped into a kettle was in 1982 in a Chicago suburb. Since then it's happened about 300 times across the country.

It was the third year in a row that a rare Liberty Eagle coin was left in Fort Myers, apparently by the same person, said Megan Spears, a spokeswoman for the local chapter.

Like the two previous years, the coin was in a small plastic case with a note printed neatly on plain, unlined paper: "In memory of Mimi."