Salvation Army Lakeland Capt. Jeremy Mockabee with the largest red kettle in the United States.
Salvation Army Lakeland Capt. Jeremy Mockabee with the largest red kettle in the United States. | Kimberly C. Moore, Jazbablog

Lakeland's Salvation Army corps can boast something none of the other 1,087 units of the charitable organization in the country can — it is the proud owner of the largest red kettle in the United States.

Although, “Orlando has one that’s close,” Lakeland Capt. Jeremy Mockabee conceded, and Detroit has a 56-foot-tall wire-framed holiday display in the shape of a kettle.

Lakeland's massive fiberglass kettle replica is 9 feet tall and 8 feet 4 inches in diameter.

“It’s solid — I can tell you that,” Mockabee said. “It weighs a ton as well.”

In the last century, the red kettle has become a symbol of the Salvation Army, which is known to deploy bell-ringing volunteers outside stores to collect donations during the holiday season. The tradition began in San Francisco in 1891 as a way to provide holiday meals to the poor.

Lakeland's giant kettle has gotten a few makeovers since its debut in 2004, due to “wear and tear and sitting out in the sun,” Mockabee said.

Most recently, thousands of Lakeland residents caught a glimpse of it during Lakeland's 42nd Annual Christmas Parade on Dec. 7, although they might not have recognized it — it was cleverly disguised as a giant gumball machine, although they called it a “Hope Dispenser.”

“Normally it has a handle,” he said, explaining that the local group removed that to transform it to go along with the parade’s Candyland theme.

The Lakeland Salvation Army's Giant Red Kettle in this year's Christmas Parade on Dec. 7, 2023.
The Lakeland Salvation Army's Giant Red Kettle in this year's Christmas Parade on Dec. 7, 2023.

Local fundraising efforts provide housing and more

Mockabee said the local Salvation Army corps is just short of its fundraising goal this year and he is hoping people will donate in the last week of 2023.

“Everything we do with the red kettle campaign — every penny raised in Polk County — goes to fund everything you see here,” he said, standing on the organization's North Lakeland property along Kathleen Road, which is home to three phases of housing that help people get on their feet. “It’s encouraging for people who live here — the money stays in their own community.”

In fact, the North Lakeland campus continues to expand. In the last few years, its emergency shelter has doubled from 20 rooms to 40, allowing families suddenly without a home to stay together for up to 90 days. Mockabee said the majority successfully find an apartment during that time period. 

There are also two rooms in the emergency shelter dedicated to one male and one female high school senior with no place to go.

Mockabee said about 500 local students are experiencing homelessness this year — a number that has been increasing annually.  In fact, he has plans to build male and female two- and three-story dormitories specifically for high school seniors.

The road into the village leads to eight triplexes for transitional housing, where residents can stay for 12 to 18 months. He said they are about to break ground on building four more.

There are 12 three-bedroom houses, where people can stay for three to five years as they pull their life together and save money for a place of their own.

There is also an after-school center and playground for the community's residents.

When Lakeland's giant red kettle was first created, the Salvation Army would take it to various locations around Polk County as a draw for spectators — and donations.

“Every day it changed location,” Mockabee said.

Its next appearance will be in the Martin Luther King, Jr., Parade next month.

Mockabee said people can donate to a virtual red kettle online. In addition, he said the group would welcome new linens, towels, and toiletries delivered to their Community Center at 2620 Kathleen Road.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to Jazbablog in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.

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