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Despite struggles, Merced family is upbeat

This Christmas, there's hope on many fronts.

Sylvia Castro and her husband, Greg, have faith that she will prevail over the cancer attacking her.

And organizers of the "A Helping Hand at Christmas" program run by The Salvation Army and the Sun-Star are hopeful area residents will continue responding to the needs of the annual holiday relief program and help meet the $70,000 fundraising goal.

The Castros received utility assistance from the Helping Hand program this year and say workers at The Salvation Army are "really good people" who continue serving needy people in the Merced area. The couple believes Sylvia's cancer, which was discovered in late October, ultimately will be vanquished.

John D. Wainwright, Helping Hand chairman, said $24,896 has been collected through Tuesday and the next few days will be crucial in edging toward the goal set for the program established 22 years ago. He believes despite tough economic times people will dig deeper to contribute to Helping Hand in the weeks ahead.

Sylvia Castro, 48, went to the hospital emergency room Oct. 24 with severe stomach pains. Four days later, she had colon cancer surgery where a "very large" tumor was removed and she had a hysterectomy. She recently discovered the cancer has spread to her lymph nodes, the bottom of her lungs and hips. She starts chemotherapy soon.

"I think I will be OK. With the help of the Lord, we'll be all right," Sylvia Castro said. "I can let the cancer defeat me or I can defeat it. Something good is going to come out of this."

Greg Castro, 50, has lived in Merced about 20 years, coming here from Hollister where he lived until he was 25 years old. He has done various maintenance work and general labor, landscaping and interior painting work but needs to stay home now to tend to his ailing wife.

"I'm kinda worried about her condition; it bothers me," Greg Castro said. "We trust in the Lord. I'm believing God will do something and will heal her. She's a soldier, a strong woman. My wife is stronger than me."

Wainwright said it's hard to say what the fundraising outcome will be. Checks of small and larger denominations continue to filter in for Helping Hand, which is administered by The Salvation Army.

Sylvia Castro, a former crew leader at Servicemaster for a year and a cleaning specialist for four years at Donjean's Cleaning and Restoration Specialists, wants to get back on her feet and be a blessing to the community. She reaches out to prisoners at Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, urging others to avoid the drugs and alcohol that once gripped her. She and her husband now write to prison inmates, urging them to lead Christian lives and mentoring them whenever possible.

"God turned my life around 12 years ago," Sylvia Castro said. "I'm not ashamed to tell people there is a way out. God did it for me and can do it for others." She said her mother, who is 77 years old, also beat cancer years ago.

The Castros are thankful for the help they receive from The Salvation Army, including periodic allotments of food. Other people, including members of the Apostolic Tabernacle church they attend, have helped with furniture, a bicycle and a lawn mower that Castro uses to maintain several lawns in the area.

"I believe God is going to make a miracle before this is over," Greg Castro said.

Similarly, The Salvation Army believes things will turn out fine with the holiday donation drive.

Capt. Raymond Erickson-King, Salvation Army commander in Merced, said Helping Hand got off to a strong start, the campaign is still young and the response from the public has been good.

Donations may be made payable to "A Helping Hand at Christmas," 23 W. Alexander Ave., P.M.B. 68, Merced, CA 95348. Donors can have an appropriate message of 10 words or less printed in the Sun-Star or can remain anonymous.