Hear that bell? The Salvation Army's red kettles are here

It is not business as usual, however. Just like last year, demand is up and donations are down. Salvation Army officials are holding their collective breath about whether they can reach their $1.6 million goal in what, for many Georgians, remains a sour economy.

"We're hopeful -- we have to be," said Major Jim Seiler, who leads the Salvation Army's Metro Atlanta Area Command. Just Thursday, the command opened an addition onto its downtown Atlanta shelter that added 21 rooms for families to complement the building's four existing ones. "We're moving 10 families in today," Seiler said Friday. "By close of business Monday, I expect every one of those rooms will be filled. We're doing the best we can with the resources we have."

The needs aren't going away. Neither are the constraints on people's budgets. Georgia's jobless rate hit 10.2 percent in October -- the fifth consecutive month in double digits, according to the state Labor Department. A forecast released this week estimated that job cuts will slow but still continue through 2010. So while not everyone who loses a job needs help, they still may not have as much to give.

Charitable giving nationally dropped 2 percent last year, according to a report released this summer by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University on behalf of the Giving USA Foundation. Adjusted for inflation, they said it was the first decline in giving since 1987 -- not that local Salvation Army officials needed the confirmation: $20,000 fewer coins and bills hit the bottom of their kettles last year than in 2007.

They still raised $1.49 million but, like this year, also found themselves faced with more expenses given the demand to provide holiday assistance and emergency food, clothing and shelter.

The red kettle campaign represents about 8 percent of the command's overall budget, Seiler said, but other fund-raising efforts mean the command is trying to raise between 30-35 percent of its revenue this time of year.

In addition to its actual kettles, the command now hosts a "virtual red kettle" on its Web site (www.salvationarmyatlanta.org) where donations can be made online. Donors can text in a pledge (Text TSA to 90999). Officials are also using Facebook and Twitter. "You can teach an old dog new tricks," Seiler said. "We're trying to reach out to a younger generation."

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