An annual choir of bell ringers began making music weeks ago in Kandiyohi County, the steady tinkle of their bells bringing the jingle of coins dropped into Salvation Army kettles at 11 different locations. The bells stop ringing at noon today, but the crescendo will be heard Christmas morning in homes throughout Kandiyohi County. That's when more than 1,000 children will be opening presents made possible by those who donated to kettles watched over by the bell ringers.
"How I'd like to peek in the windows,'' said Capt. Deborah Jolly, pastor and administrator for The Salvation Army in Willmar.
The annual "Angel Tree'' program will be bringing the joy of Christmas to at least 575 homes in the county this year, more than ever before. A dozen or so volunteers joined on Wednesday to play Santa Claus and deliver bags of presents and Christmas meals to all of the homes. It's all made possible by the generosity of those who clang coins in the kettles or not infrequently, mail contributions or drop by The Salvation Army headquarters to personally deliver them, according to Jolly.
The Salvation Army has seen a steady growth in the number of people seeking help through the Angel Tree program in the last few years. Jolly said the need has grown as the economy has struggled.
Some of those seeking help are unemployed or unable to work; others have jobs but aren't able to make ends meet, she said.
"Some people just don't have the money to do what they want to do for their families,'' said Jolly.
The good news is that people are doing more to help meet this need. Jolly said it will likely take until mid-January to tally up all of the season's donations, but at last count things were on track. The Salvation Army was 71 percent of the way towards its goal of $58,000.
As donations were arriving, so were requests for help.
Jolly said the Salvation Army gets word out weeks earlier to let people know that those with needs can apply for help. Parents fill out an application to show their need, and give the Salvation Army the name, age, gender and Christmas wishes of their children.
This year about 30 percent of the children will receive the exactly the gifts they had on their lists. All of the children receive gifts, usually a couple toys, a clothing article and stocking stuffer-type item. Barbie Dolls, Legos and football and soccer balls are the big items this year.
Finding stuff for the young children is easy, said Jolly, who added: "The teenagers are hard.''
While the Salvation Army is one of the most visible charitable organizations during the holidays, Jolly said the Salvation Army is certainly not alone in helping out families with Christmas needs.
The United Way, veterans groups, churches and other organizations also play important roles in helping those in need during the holidays.
The area food shelves also play a major role in collecting toys and gifts for families in need, Jolly said.
In fact, last month was the all-time record-breaker for the Willmar Area Food Shelf with 794 families served, said Christie Kurth, director of the food shelf.
With an increasing number of families needing assistance this Christmas season, December is likely to set a new record. "It just keeps climbing," she said.
The Willmar Area Food Shelf has set new records every month since January of 2009. From 2008 to 2009 there was a 23 percent increase in people served. This year the increase will be another 12 to 13 percent.
Fortunately, the generosity of the community is matching the need so far, according to Kurth.
Thursday morning a regular food shelf donor brought in a $5,000 check, and Thursday afternoon someone walked in with a $750 check.
"The generosity within the people in the county has been overwhelming," Kurth said. "It's a miracle."
Donations continue to come in as well for Warm the Children -- a local program that helps provide warm winter clothing for children. The program has reached 85 percent of its 2010 goal of $39,000, and 100 percent of all monetary donations go to the children.
Geared toward helping "the working poor" who struggle to make ends meet, the program each year helps hundreds of children in Kandiyohi, Meeker, Renville, Chippewa, Yellow Medicine and Swift counties. Volunteers help take the families shopping, allowing the children to purchase warm clothing to suit their needs.
The program is run by the West Central Tribune, in partnership with Main Street Willmar. Donations may be mailed to or dropped off at the Tribune office or at any one of eight downtown Willmar businesses.
The Salvation Army's Capt. Jolly said the meaning of Christmas isn't found in the toys placed under the trees but in the happiness and excitement that those presents bring to the children -- and knowing the pleasure it brings their parents.
Jolly said the meaning Christmas was evident earlier this week in the generosity that filled the Salvation Army office with bags of presents waiting to be delivered. "This is Christmas,'' she said.
-- Tribune staff writer Carolyn Lange contributed to this story.