As the thermostat dips to a toe-numbing 7 degrees on a recent Friday, 88-year-old Yvonne Bittle sits bundled in front of Safeway on West Broadway next to a red Salvation Army kettle and shakes a tambourine.
"It takes me about an hour to get dressed and an hour and a half to get undressed," Bittle says. "When it gets real cold, then I have the muff too."
Bittle has collected donations for the Salvation Army three days a week, five hours a day, through every holiday season the past 26 years. And she's learned what it takes to stay warm.
Today, she wears two undershirts and pink long johns under a flowing white angel costume made of thick upholstery fabric. Lined shin-high white boots, gold wings and a fluffy white hat complete the ensemble.
The gown is slightly frayed at the bottom, its gold wings perhaps a bit droopier than they were when the Salvation Army had the dress made for Bittle 16 years ago. One of her immaculately braided gold buttons is loose. A safety pin helps hold it all together.
Bittle keeps a thermos of hot Tang in a paper shopping bag next to her cushioned chair. If it gets too chilly, she steps inside Safeway for a bit. But Bittle says the weather this year hasn't bothered her. She's felt worse.
"The first year that I stood kettle I was on the corner of the bank building down Higgins, and that year it got to be 31 below zero on my corner with the wind factor," she says. "They came and said, 'You don't have to do this.' And I said, 'Oh yes, you don't understand, I do have to do it.'"
Bittle is committed to helping people in need. Over the years, she's collected donations in various Missoula locations, but she now has a regular spot.
"For five years I walked around in the outfit and carried a little kettle," she says. "And then, when I couldn't walk around that well anymore, they parked me at Safeway. So Safeway just kept me. I've been at Safeway now 11 years...As long as the costume holds up, I'll do it."