MERCED -- A $65,000 goal has been set for this year's "A Helping Hand at Christmas" program, a cooperative effort to raise funds for needy Merced County residents over the holiday season.
The program administered by the Merced branch of The Salvation Army with help from the Merced Sun-Star runs through December. Last year, $51,800 was received, and program organizers concede the challenge to stimulate giving is uphill this year with the problems that continue to plague the area economy.
Capt. Joel Harmon, Merced's Salvation Army commander, plans to do several things differently to raise Helping Hand funds. He has visited local service clubs and is pushing online giving along with the established red kettle efforts.
Harmon said Helping Hand appeal letters are being sent to more people this year. About 100 contacts were added to The Salvation Army mailing list. More company Web sites have a link to The Salvation Army's kettle program this year, and more store sites have been added this year for the familiar red kettles and their bell-ringers.
Getting food, rental and utility assistance remain the primary issues with which many local residents are struggling, Harmon said. He anticipates the needs will stay the same or grow larger this year.
"I'm glad to be part of a community that helps those in need," Harmon said. "This year there will be more requests for rental assistance, as people laid off from their jobs come up short."
There have been several instances in which people want to adopt needy families this year, Harmon said.
A Gracious Community
Helping Hand Chairwoman Elaine Gale said Mercedians have always been gracious in giving to The Salvation Army.
"They know it's going to stay here and be used in the community," Gale said. "This is the fifth year of the recession and it has taken its toll. The hardships are greater this year."
Gale has been involved with The Salvation Army since the 1980s, when she was a case worker. Now a volunteer who interviews and screens applicants and handles financial matters, she said her heart is eager to help the poor and needy and those in difficult situations.
Sometimes that means praying for people as well, Gale said.
Maria Chavez of Livingston, the mother of two young children, praises the Helping Hand program. Last year, the Livingston woman received $328 in help from The Salvation Army to pay her Pacific Gas & Electric bill after she had gotten a shutoff notice.
Last year, her husband was laid off from his job. He's back to work now and Chavez said Helping Hand is a good program which was helpful to her family.
Gale said that last year, three families were helped with PG&E payments and two others were assisted with utility payments to the Merced and Turlock irrigation districts.
Another family received help paying its propane bill and two families were assisted with city water bills. Seven families got assistance with rent payments.
Steve Shelton, Salvation Army social services coordinator, believes the needs this year seem more intense. He has been able to refer a couple of people to potential jobs but doesn't have as much time to spend with needy individuals this year.
Donations to "A Helping Hand at Christmas" can be sent to 23 W. Alexander Ave., PMB 68, Merced, 95348. Donors have the option of having an appropriate message of 10 or fewer words printed in the Sun-Star, or they can remain anonymous.
In its appeal letter, The Salvation Army advisory board made this plea:
"Please join us with a spirit of generosity to make this Christmas memorable, both for yourself and for those who receive your help. Together we can show that Merced continues to be a loving, caring community, even when times are tough."
The advisory board appeal letter said the economic situation seems mixed, with positive news one day and reports of more home mortgage foreclosures or job losses the next. What is evident, however, is there still are many families and individuals who are struggling to survive.
The Salvation Army assists more than 17 million people with basic social services each year across the world, and more than 6 million people during the holiday season. The Salvation Army serves in more than 122 countries.
Its first major efforts in disaster relief followed the 1900 hurricane in Galveston, Texas, the worst single-day natural disaster in U.S. history, and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. The Salvation Army's familiar red shield dates from 1896 and its flag, other than the U.S. flag, is the only one to have flown on the moon.
Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.