Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2008 | Petrea Saunders spends her Sunday afternoons during the holiday season as a Salvation Army volunteer. She’s the one in the Salvation Army uniform and glasses and red jacket, trying to spread a bit of cheer at the Mission Valley mall, greeting shoppers with wishes for a joyful Christmas.

She works for the Salvation Army in a paid role, but on her weekends she’s a volunteer, too. She says she does it to repay the organization that’s done so much for her. When she has struggled, Saunders says the Salvation Army has been there for her.

She had little when she came to San Diego five years ago. She’s struggled with homelessness and alcohol addiction. She’s past that now, and says she wants to help others celebrate Christmas. Saunders is 60 — “proud of it” — and rang the red bell and manned a kettle outside grocery stores before moving to the Mission Valley kiosk. “What is Christmas without seeing a bell ringer?” she asks.

I’m curious to know why you volunteer your time here, why you ring the bell.

I have an obligation to the Salvation Army because they were kind to me. OK, I came to San Diego about five years ago. I’d been in Texas for a while, I was involved in a pretty bad relationship.

I came to San Diego, and I was in need. I needed help. Catholic Charities assisted me — they’re wonderful. And the Salvation Army, I started going to have meals there. They asked if I wanted to volunteer — I said yes, to give back to them for what they’ve done for me.

They were very kind with me, even with my background and the situation I came from. How blessed am I? The volunteer work I was doing at the Salvation Army turned into a job (with the organization). God is so good, he’s so good. He’s just given me a banquet now. Doing God’s work is wonderful. The bell-ringing is icing on the cake, just to bring people Christmas cheer. You know when you were a kid? That ding-ding-ding-ding? Didn’t you hear that bell?

Tell me about coming to San Diego and finding the Salvation Army.

I was over at Rachel’s Women’s Center. Salvation Army is one block away. They were having meals over there, I needed a place to eat. God opened the door for me there. And the shelter helped me 20 years ago there. That’s how I started going to the Salvation Army. Originally, honestly, it was to get a meal. And that developed into going to church there. I cannot tell you how good it’s been. When you turn your life over to Him, it’s so wonderful. And the Salvation Army, they don’t turn their back on anybody.

Tell me about your time volunteering and interacting with people. Tell me a good story.

People tell stories about how they’ve come to know the Salvation Army. And oh, I didn’t know you were a Christian organization. It gives us an opportunity to communicate with them. And they love to give the toys and help with the kids. They know it’s legit, an honest organization.

What does this time of year mean to you?

I’m bubbling right now. For me, it’s the reminder that Jesus was born for us through God and that Christmas is a time for us to rejoice in all the joy and everything around. And giving. Giving, giving, giving.

How will you spend this Christmas?

I’m going to pick up the girls at Rachel’s and we’re going over to the Civic Center for the big shindig with the Salvation Army. (She cups her hands over her mouth as if talking through a megaphone and slips into an announcer’s voice.) It’s Dec. 25, at 11:30, at the Civic Center. You do not need a ticket to get in. Just come on down.

We’re all going to walk over to the Civic Center. It’s so cool. That I don’t think about as volunteering. It’s intertwining things. It’s so much fun.

It seems like you’ve assimilated those different experiences into your life now.

Everything is so wonderful now. All the good stuff, I just can’t tell you. I got my recovery started at Rachel’s. One of the head directors there said: “Petrea, why don’t you get into recovery?”

Recovery from what?

Alcohol. She said if you want to get into a shelter, you have to start going to AA meetings. I didn’t know anything about them. She got me in a program for 10 days. I started going, started my journey with my recovery, and it’s been a battle. I’m over it now, but that monkey’s always going to be there. The clients who come into the Salvation Army who are homeless or low-income, they know I’ve been there. So it’s easier for them to feel comfortable. I’m there for them. I really, really am. It’s important for me.

I’m a soldier, and I’m so proud to be. I’m so glad God has given me this opportunity.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

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