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Salvation Army collections set record
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Richard Dickerson, 73, scrubs a container Monday inside the kitchen at the Salvation Army lodge on Dorsey Street in Gainesville. Dickerson has been a bell ringer for the organization's red kettle campaign for more than seven years. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Wilson Wright rang a bell for Salvation Army so much this year that he jokes his wrists hurt.

"Every night it was cling-cling, cling-cling," Wright said of the donation drive.

Wright, who lives in the Gainesville Salvation Army shelter, rang in one penny short of $8,616 in donations this year - more than any other bell ringer in the local shelter.

And local shoppers gave more than they ever have.

"If this year could be a mark of things to come, then things are looking up," said Salvation Army corps officer Lt. Matt Cunningham.

Shoppers in Hall, Dawson, Lumpkin, Barrow and Forsyth counties dropped nearly $180,989 in the red buckets situated outside of area stores this Christmas, making a record year for the Salvation Army kettle campaign, Cunningham said.

The red kettle campaign that runs between Thanksgiving and Christmas has become the agency's biggest fundraiser, helping to supplement its $1.5 million annual budget.

This year's campaign surpassed last year's by about $18,000.

"The community really stepped up this year, and saw that there is a need and that we need to help these people," Cunningham said.

Along with the record Christmastime donations, the Salvation Army has experienced record numbers of people coming to the agency for assistance. An overwhelming majority of them - Cunningham roughly estimates nearly 90 percent - are asking the Salvation Army for help for the first time.

Wright is one of them. The 61-year-old moved into the Salvation Army shelter four months ago, seeking help from the Savation Army after becoming homeless.

Salvation Army residents like Wright and 36-year-old Elizabeth Holman have the opportunity to ring the bell to help with their weekly rent payments at the shelter.

Holman first sought help from the Gainesville Salvation Army on Dec. 14. On Dec. 15, she had an income ringing the bell.

For Holman, the bell ringing helped her move one step closer to creating a stable home for her and her two sons while she continues to look for a job in the medical field.

Being a bell ringer also felt like a way for Wright to give back, he said.

"It made me feel better about helping out," he said. "It really did."

So far this year, the local Salvation Army has helped more than 4,000 people in the five-county area with rent, utilities, food or clothing, Cunningham said.

It also helped provide Christmas gifts and dinners for more than 700 area families, including about 2,000 children.

And as the economy seems to drag its feet towards a recovery, the agency's rules for transitional shelters have changed with the circumstances.

Though the nonprofit gives individuals and families the opportunity to stay in its transitional shelter for 90 days until they get on their feet, it has begun to allow individuals and families to stay for as long as six months as jobs have been harder to find.

"We've been seeing a lot of people that are falling on hard times," Cunningham said. "...It's just been a very hectic year for meeting the needs."

And with the record contributions this year, Cunningham feels a little more confident that Salvation Army can meet the area's need.

That doesn't mean he isn't still looking for help. Absent the iconic red kettles, Cunningham said he hopes that charitable residents continue to give.

"That $180,000 is great; it's a wonderful record," he said. "But that doesn't meet the needs for the rest of the year."

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