The Salvation Army rang in the holiday season Thursday evening at Central Mall with a kick off ceremony for its Angel Tree and annual Christmas Red Kettle Drive.
The Angel Tree Christmas assistance program is the Salvation Army's largest program. Each of the 1,800 angels on the tree represents a child from infant to 12-years-old in the River Valley who will receive clothing and gifts and might otherwise have missed out on Christmas. Each family that applied for the program will also receive a food box to help with their holiday meal.
The Red Kettle Drive is the Salvation Army's largest annual fundraiser. Donations support members of the community year-round.
The requests for support from the Salvation Army increase each year, and 2012 is no different.
"We have quite a challenge for us this year as the economy has really, really put a lot of pressure on our three county areas that we serve," said Captain Carlyle Gargis, Commanding Officer of the Salvation Army in Fort Smith. "We have a big task ahead of us, but I know that the folks here in the River Valley are good for it."
Many of the Salvation Army's volunteers have directly benefited from the organization's programs.
Just three years ago, Bill Bruton was living on the streets. He found his way to a Salvation Army with just a backpack full of clothes. Bruton had a driver's license, which allowed him to work transporting Salvation Army bell ringers.
"I loved it," said Bruton. "I saw the good that it does - how it genuinely helps people."
"I was benefiting the minute I walked in the door," he said. "Right then and there they gave me a place to stay, something to eat and little by little the more I became willing to help, it’s like doors keep opening.”
These days, Bruton is married to a woman he met at the Salvation Army. He plays in the organization's brass and bluegrass bands, and he helps teach Sunday school.
"My time on the streets seem like a bad dream."