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'A Helping Hand at Christmas' goal within reach

Of all the things she could hope for, Lisa Presley (no, not that one) wishes she could get back her health, independence and self-sufficiency.

Speaking of wishes, The Salvation Army's John Wainwright and Capt. Raymond Erickson-King hope lagging donations to the annual "A Helping Hand at Christmas" pick up as the holiday relief program enters the home stretch.

A total of $54,369 has been received for the Helping Hand program, a joint effort of the Salvation Army and the Merced Sun-Star that has been in effect 22 years. Wainwright, the program's chairman, is confident more than $60,000 ultimately will be collected toward the $70,000 fundraising goal.

Presley has rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and stomach problems that keep her from working in sales and marketing. The 46-year-old grandmother of five received rent assistance from the Helping Hand program. She isn't used to getting instead of giving. She said this was her first time asking for help from others.

"I've always been on the giving side and have worked all my life," Presley said. "I've never been on the receiving end; I wasn't raised that way. I have this thing called pride and feel people are looking down on you."

Wainwright said last year as of Dec. 22 the Helping Hand program had received $67,915; it collected a total of $72,870 during the 2007 holiday appeal. Close to $1 million has been raised during the program's lifetime.

"I think we will come fairly close to meeting our goal, but it's hard to say," Wainwright said. "People are having tougher times and many are affected by the economy. But people have been very generous so far and we're not done yet."

Erickson-King, commander of the Merced Salvation Army branch that interviews candidates for assistance and disperses funds to needy individuals, said the biggest needs this year have been for help making rent and mortgage payments. The Salvation Army will be interviewing those needing help way into January, he anticipates.

"We've just been helping people," Erickson-King said. "We've only turned away two people for various reasons."

Sun-Star Publisher Hank Vander Veen said he would love to see Helping Hand reach its $70,000 goal but understands the difficult economic times.

"We do appreciate the community's generosity so far," Vander Veen said. "We are happy that people are stepping up."

Presley has lived in Merced since 1984 and worked for five years at the Greater Merced Chamber of Commerce, first as an office assistant and then in sales and marketing. She also worked several years as a family assistance representative for the Merced County Human Services Agency and trained with the state Employment Development Department.

She received an associate of arts degree in liberal studies and business administration in 1999 from Merced College.

"I miss working," Presley said. "I would love to go back to work, but realistically I don't think I'll ever be able to. It's depressing; I used to be out, and now I'm home without friends. I feel like the disease is progressing."

In May 2006 she had emergency surgery for bowl obstructions and was in the hospital for 10 days. She said the surgery wasn't successful and she continues to experience stomach problems.

Covered by Social Security disability and Medicare, Presley discovered many of the pain medications she regularly takes aren't covered by insurance. One of these prescriptions costs $200 alone. She feels as if she's in a Catch-22 situation: When she's in pain, she can't concentrate, and the medication can make her drowsy. She doesn't trust herself to drive anymore.

"If Santa could bring back my health and strength for me, that would be fine. This is the first year I haven't been able to buy any Christmas presents for my grandchildren," Presley said. Her 6-year-old granddaughter was born on Christmas day; she has 7- and 8-year-old grandsons and two 3-year-olds.

Jessica Pearce, The Salvation Army administrative assistant, said several people helped this year have had their wallets, cash and credit cards stolen. Several others have lost their jobs and can't pay their rent or mortgage.

Wainwright, who has been on The Salvation Army board of directors for about 45 years, said donations might pick up soon but concedes some people may have had to tighten the belt financially on their charitable giving.

Presley said she feels good about The Salvation Army's efforts and praised Pearce for having a big heart and going out of her way to help her.

"The Salvation Army helped with a portion of the rent and I appreciate it," Presley said.

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