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Tough times call for extra dedication

In its 25th year, the A Helping Hand at Christmas program seeks to raise $65,000 to make the holidays -- and next year -- brighter for the less fortunate.

Last year's goal was $68,000, with just over $57,000 ultimately raised by the philanthropic program co-sponsored by the Merced Sun-Star and the Merced Corps branch of The Salvation Army.

Since the program began, more than $1 million has been contributed by local donors.

Capt. Joel Harmon, Merced's Salvation Army commander, doesn't believe things have gotten any worse for the Merced economy but they definitely aren't much better, either.

Harmon pointed out that donations to Helping Hand are a lasting gift, with funds used to keep Salvation Army programs operating throughout the next year.

"Some people in the community continue to support The Salvation Army in similar amounts to past years," Harmon said. "Times are difficult for many people."

Steve Shelton, The Salvation Army's social services coordinator, is optimistic about Helping Hand success this year.

"Everything's going to be OK this year," Shelton said. "The need might be greater; we've gotten calls (for help) earlier this year."

Funds donated to Helping Hand will help people with emergency situations, such as medication, car repairs, rent and unexpected expenses. Helping Hand money not used at Christmas will be used to stock The Salvation Army's food pantry throughout the year.

The Helping Hand program was started by the late John Wainwright, who noticed a similar program operated by the Monterey Peninsula Herald newspaper and suggested to Sun-Star management the program would work here.

Harmon said 300 food boxes to be given out this Christmas season will come out of the Helping Hand fund. His wife, Capt. Rhonda Harmon, will be doing the interviews to determine recipients for the Helping Hand program.

Contributions to The Salvation Army's red kettle and mail appeal are on track to be about the same as last year's figures, according to Harmon.

Elaine Gale, who monitors Helping Hand finances, said supporting the program is fulfilling and God blesses those who help other people.

With Helping Hand, the Sun-Star publicizes the program's charitable efforts throughout the holiday season and collects money for the program. The Salvation Army is in charge of dispensing the funds.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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