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Assisting family just part of Helping Hand's success

The Salvation Army's "A Helping Hand at Christmas" is within about $1,000 of meeting its goal for the holiday season.

Program organizers are ecstatic about the success in the face of discouraging economic times.

John Wainwright, chairman of the cooperative program between The Salvation Army and the Sun-Star, said they expect to receive $66,100 and could exceed the $67,500 goal set in November before fundraising got under way.

"I am very happy with the results," Wainwright said. "My hat's off to these people who have been so generous. People really responded, realizing so many people in the community have lots of needs."

One of those assisted was Maria Vega, 20, of Livingston. She received rent assistance from The Salvation Army and is deeply thankful for the help.

Capt. Joel Harmon, the Merced Corps officer for the Salvation Army, said donations to Helping Hand typically extend into the new year. The program will help people for months to come.

"So many people are having difficult times," Harmon said. "John Wainwright and his wife have worked so hard to be able to help lots of people. All that money goes right to people, with only a little bit taken out for expenses."

Vega lives in a Livingston apartment with her 2-year-old son, Carlos, and her boyfriend. She's expecting another boy Jan. 10 and hopes to return to college next March to continue studies toward a degree in child development.

Vega reports her family has experienced lots of financial problems. Her boyfriend got laid off from work and can't find another job despite repeated attempts.

"There's nothing out there. He just can't find anything right now," Vega said. "At first I was scared and nervous to call (The Salvation Army), but eventually did to see if they could give us a hand. They helped with the rent. It's a really good program, and I really appreciate the help."

Debra Kuykendall, Sun-Star publisher, said the newspaper is happy to lend its support to a program that helps so many people.

"The money goes directly to the community," Kuykendall said. "You can see the results, helping families that may be struggling. It's nice to give something back."

Wainwright expects the Helping Hand program, launched 23 years ago, to continue receiving checks through early January. He thanked his wife Barbara, Jim Rosa and Jess Pearce of The Salvation Army for helping him with it.

Wainwright said Helping Hand donors have been faithful over the years, even with the local economy in the tank.

"It's been a great year for us," Wainwright said.

Harmon stressed donations received for Helping Hand will be applied to that program into the next year. The focus this year has been on rent assistance.

"The need this year definitely is the same -- if not greater," he said.

Vega was born in Mexico, but came to Livingston when she was 3. She stopped attending Livingston High School as a sophomore, but returned to Livingston Christian Academy for two years and got her high school diploma.

Volunteering at Schelby School, Vega helped mentally challenged students and shows heart in helping the handicapped. Coincidentally, she attended summer school classes at Schelby School as a 6-year-old and was scared at first by special-needs students.

"But I soon realized, what's the difference between me and them?" Vega said. "While some people stay away from them, I wanted to help them out."

As a member of Livingston 4-H programs, she got involved in "Friends Helping Friends," where handicapped children get to enjoy Merced County Fair experiences.

And now Helping Hand has given her and her family a hand.