Going in, they knew they faced a tough task.
That was to meet the $70,000 goal for the annual "A Helping Hand at Christmas" program in an area beset by high unemployment and a sour economy.
They didn't quite make it, but still came close.
John D. Wainwright, chairman of the Helping Hand program co-sponsored by the Merced Salvation Army branch and the Merced Sun-Star, said about $65,300 was raised this year. A few more donations still may be received.
Jessica Pearce, Salvation Army administrative assistant and Helping Hand coordinator, said her organization will be able to help more people throughout the year with program donations.
"I'm glad so many people were able to give," Pearce said. "People saw we really needed it, and overall the program went well."
Wainwright, who's been the chairman for the 22 years the Christmas-season program has been running in Merced, said contributions can still be made to Helping Hand. Customarily, a few donations come in even after the first of the year.
"With the U.S. economy and troubles in our community, I think that figure ($65,000) is awfully good," Wainwright said. "It was a very successful program this year, even if some donations were pared down a little bit. I feel really happy we received what we did."
Hank Vander Veen, Sun-Star publisher, said fundraising totals represented an uplifting effort in a tough year.
"That's awesome, really good," Vander Veen said. "We appreciate the involvement of John Wainwright. I didn't think we had a shot at it. I continue to be impressed with people stepping up to help the program." A similar effort undertaken in Modesto only yielded about $45,000, he said.
Over the course of the program's tenure, about $987,000 has been raised to meet needy individuals' needs. The Salvation Army administers the program and disperses donations to qualifying individuals and families.
Pearce said 15 families were aided this time around. Help with rent and mortgage payments was the big need this year. In one instance, a man couldn't work while his wife undergoes cancer treatment. In another case, a man died, and his family couldn't pay rent while taking care of funeral costs. Several family breadwinners either lost jobs or had their hours cut back. Some people had trouble paying rent while covering medical expenses, she said.
Capt. Raymond Erickson-King, Salvation Army commander in Merced, said Helping Hand fundraising went better than expected and the program should be able to help people at least through the end of this month.
"Needs were greater this year," Erickson-King said. "We have seen more people seeking assistance compared with last year. I want to say thank you to the community for all their support. Without them, we wouldn't be able to do what we do to help people."
In 2007, a total of $72,870 was raised for Helping Hand.