Salvation Army bell ringers dusted off their red pails and their matching bells. Then they started ringing in the Christmas green.
Thursday was the Kettle Kick-Off. The 15th annual event at Modesto Centre Plaza marked the ceremonial beginning of holiday fund-raising.
In a long-marked tradition that is equal parts Thanksgiving lunch, Christmas party and Halloween, bell ringers adorned in everything from elf hats to the Modesto Junior College mascot Pirate suit raced each other for donations from the crowd. Zealous players pulled off the coin-drop lids on their pails to smash the bills and change in faster.
Participants raised $189,567, which counted donations they secured ahead of time.
"It's really kind of the set-off for the whole holiday season," said Major Ed Covert, Stanislaus County coordinator for The Salvation Army. "This is like, 'OK, boys, let's get up and run from here,' because this is a busy time of year for us."
On Thanksgiving, The Salvation Army serves dinner to about a thousand people at Modesto Centre Plaza. During last year's holiday season, it handed out more than 3,000 Christmas food baskets, 22,000 Christmas toys, 3,000 gifts to nursing homes and almost 10,000 clothing items.
Beginning today, bell ringers will appear outside shopping centers. By the day after Thanksgiving, they are expected to set up at about two dozen locations.
Nero Robinson, 42, said he will be out today at Richland Market on Carpenter Road and plans to ring his bell through Dec. 23.
"At some point, we all need help," Robinson said.
He was between jobs when he and his wife turned to The Salvation Army for a food basket a couple of years ago. He since has gone to work for the charity as an employee and a volunteer.
"Last year, there were little kids, lonely people and people in wheelchairs getting food baskets or jackets, and you could see a lot of people in line were not happy, but when they get that food basket or that jacket, you see a little relief," Robinson said. "And that's a good feeling."
Target set at $175,000
The Salvation Army hopes Modesto bell ringers will generate $175,000 in donations outside shopping centers for the holidays and year-round programs, including its food bank, social services and homeless shelter.
Organizers had hoped Thursday's event would top the record $200,000 raised in 2005. Last year's event brought in $196,000.
"The economy is not that good this year, so this is a generous outpouring from the community," fund-raiser Kenni Friedman said, "that's going to allow us to provide for those that are affected by this economic situation. Some of the people you are helping might be the people who bag your groceries at the grocery story. They may have a job, but it isn't enough to provide for their family. We don't realize how much of the time that is the case."
Bee staff writer Inga Miller can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2324.