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Helping Hand at Christmas closing in on monetary goal

This season is all about giving gifts and area residents have been generous so far in helping the less-fortunate, according to organizers of the annual Helping Hand at Christmas program.

John Wainwright, chairman of the cooperative program between the Merced Salvation Army branch and the Merced Sun-Star, said $44,440 has been donated so far toward the $65,000 goal. That's $2,230 higher than at this point last year. Last year's $65,000 fund-raising goal ultimately was exceeded by $72,983 in donations.

"A lot of people are aware of the economics and are giving more which is great," Wainwright said. "I think we'll come pretty close to our goal; at this point we feel real good."

Capt. Raymond Erickson-King, Salvation Army commander, said more people are pouring their financial resources into avoiding foreclosure, making other needs, including Pacific Gas and Electric Co. bills, greater.

Elaine Gale, the Salvation Army's Helping Hand coordinator who interviews those seeking help, said the need is great locally. People have lost jobs, welfare benefits have been cut, agricultural jobs are dormant and construction has pretty much stopped.

"There are a number of things people have experienced," Gale said. "We don't pay the whole thing; we help them so they can help themselves. Most needs are for rental assistance and electricity has gone up."

Wainwright said the Salvation Army has been able to help many people take care of their day-to-day needs after they have experienced problems or hard luck.

"I applaud people giving to this program who have enough empathy to realize this area has all these situations that make it really tough on a lot of people," he said.

Hank Vander Veen, the Merced Sun-Star's publisher, is gratified with the public's response to the holiday program, in its 21st year. He praised Wainwright for his hard work in seeing that the program succeeds.

"It's great to see the community get behind a program like this. Hopefully the last week will bring us to our goal," Vander Veen said.

Christy Chess, the Sun-Star's human resources director, said $2,084 was realized from street sales Dec. 4 of a four-page Helping Hands special section. Sun-Star employees and Salvation Army volunteers sold the special edition on street corners that morning.

Some of the people assisted illustrate the nature of needs this season.

A woman who applied for rental assistance said she and her husband and son were laid off from their seasonal jobs and are struggling to keep from being homeless. A couple with two children sought help with their PG&E bill. The woman has a heart problem and had open heart surgery. She almost died in March. The family lives on $1,234 a month from disability and Social Security.

An 81-year-old woman applying for rental assistance to get back on her feet had cancer and surgery in October 2006. She was hit by a car when walking to the store and spent a month in the hospital and in rehabilitation.

Another woman and her two children are homeless but thankfully living with friends for a short time. She sought help with the first month's rent to get re-established again, Wainwright said.

A couple are living at a Delhi campground after the man lost his security job when the position closed. They sought help for rent, food and utilities.

"These are just a few of the many applicants who come in for help," Wainwright said. "Lots of food, clothing, blankets and other necessities are given out daily to these hurting people. By your generous gifts to A Helping Hand at Christmas, many of these parents and children are helped out who otherwise would be sleeping in the street in subfreezing weather."

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or dyawger@mercedsun-star.com.

Nearing the target

Helping Hand program has raised more than $2,000 more than last year at this point in its annual drive.

DONATED THIS YEAR: $44,440

GOAL: $65,000

LAST YEAR'S TOTAL: $72,983

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