When William Booth founded the Salvation Army in 1865, he did so with support from a volunteer army. The continued support of volunteers throughout the years is what has helped the Salvation Army continue its mission of "doing the most good" and that work is evident here in Lycoming County.
Last year was the sixth annual Santa Fund, a joint partnership between the Salvation Army and the Williamsport Sun-Gazette, which raised awareness to the critical needs of those living in poverty, families in crisis due to loss of income, illness or other emergencies, according to Capt. Debbie Engel, auxiliary captain at the Salvation Army, 457 Market St.
The Salvation Army submitted stories about local families in need, while the Sun-Gazette provided the space to print them. The stories, with the names of individuals changed to protect their identity, were printed daily from Thanksgiving until Christmas in the Lifestyle section of the Sun-Gazette.
Capt. Debbie, along with Anthony Perrotta, public relations and development director, and Amy McGovern, social services manager, wrote the stories with a letter to Santa theme.
In order to help collect the funds, a special account was created with M&T Bank, which allowed local residents and businesses to drop off or mail in donations.
"The Sun-Gazette is extremely grateful and touched by this year's participation at a time when many of our residents are dealing with all sorts of economic hardship," said David F. Troisi, Sun-Gazette editor. "It is always gratifying to get dozens of small cash donations by people who were moved by the stories in the paper. It's impressive the way these people give generously to strangers in need. That's the sign of a quality community."
This year, the fund raised $1,312.05, which helped ensure that families in need had a Christmas dinner, Capt. Debbie said. Children 12 and younger also received toys and clothing, added her husband, Capt. Chas Engel.
Since the program's inception in 2007, more than $22,000 has been raised by the community, which has helped more than 5,500 local families.
Although Capt. Debbie previously stated that this year's goal was $5,000 - a number exceeded in 2010 - she and her husband are not disappointed with this year's results.
"2010 was a good year, in 2011 we lost 25 percent and 2012 was a fabulous season," Capt. Chas said about the overall funds raised this season from the Santa Fund and red kettle campaign.
"We assisted 1,700 with food and toys," Capt. Chas said. "Our holiday goes through the Easter season, so we are still servicing nursing and senior care homes, but we operate all year to spread our gifts around."
Capt. Debbie said that although the Christmas season is over, the Salvation Army still has more than 1,200 seniors to help in local group, elderly and personal care homes.
And with the success of this year's Red Kettle drive, the Salvation Army exceeded its goal of $70,000 with a total of $74,000. That money, Capt. Chas said, helps the food closet operate throughout the year.
"We serve between 300 to 400 families a month for 50 weeks each year," McGovern said.
This year, Perrotta was in charge of a new fundraising effort with "mini kettles," which were smaller red kettles placed at counters at local businesses. The mini kettles brought in 3 percent of the overall Red Kettle total, Capt. Chas said, which was incredible because there were only about 12 mini kettles in the community this year.
"We'd like to have more next year," Capt. Chas said. "We did really well, and that's part of what Tony does."
Perrotta added that this year's Red Kettle campaign also used an all-volunteer effort, which provided a wonderful experience for community service by senior groups, church groups and others who were interested in donating their time.
"It doesn't cost you anything," Capt. Chas said. "It's great if you don't have the money to put in but you have the time to ring [the bell]."
Capt. Debbie said that many volunteers who manned the kettles during the holiday season have continued to volunteer in other ways.
"It's not about raising money, it's about raising friends," Perrotta added.
McGovern said that after the Santa Fund stories began running in the paper, she received positive comments from the community.
"There are so many experiences day in and day out that it's not hard to find a story to tell," McGovern said. "I recently received a thank you from a woman, which was gratifying."
Capt. Chas said that he discovered that there are people who look for the stories in the paper during the season.
"We may not have raised as much as we did in the past," Capt. Chas said, "but we don't know what goes in the kettle or the volunteers we gained through the stories."
Capt. Debbie added that the stories help the Salvation Army raise awareness for all it does in the community, including church programs, the thrift stores, and Sunbeams and Girl Guards, a program similar to Girl Scouts that uses Salvation Army curriculum.
Capt. Debbie added that the Salvation Army is planning another Girl Guards camp this summer based on the success of last year's program.
"Those stories help as much as anything we do," Capt. Chas said.
McGovern said that the elderly men who come in seeking the Salvation Army's services especially move her.
"That's what gets me," she said. "When they cry and say that if not for the Salvation Army, they wouldn't get through the season."
"Sun-Gazette readers have always been active and compassionate contributors to the special causes our newspaper champions," said Bernard A. Oravec, Sun-Gazette publisher. "Over the years, we have developed a special bond with our readers and they trust that we have the community's best interest at heart."
The Salvation Army is keeping the Santa Fund open and still is accepting donations, the Engels said. Donations may be mailed to the Salvation Army, 457 Market St., or to the Sun-Gazette, in care of "Santa Fund," at 252 W. Fourth St., Williamsport, PA 17701.
"We believe the Salvation Army is a great organization and we will continue to do everything we can to support their cause," Oravec said.