The year her father died and her mother was struggling to raise her and her four siblings, Judie Brown didn't expected to have much of a Christmas.
Then an 11-year-old girl growing up in Natchez, Miss., she remembered the surprise when the presents came anyway, thanks to the Salvation Army.
Now a grown woman, Mrs. Brown left Walmart Thursday with a shopping cart full of groceries, including some dressing for Thanksgiving dinner. On her way out, she dropped a handful of coins into the red kettle; she had come full circle.
"It's kind of like paying it forward," said Mrs. Brown, 48, of Oregon.
She was among thousands of area residents who donated to the Salvation Army of Northwest Ohio as the agency kicked off its annual Red Kettle fund-raiser Thursday.
Organizers announced their goal was to raise $550,000, a nearly 6 percent increase from the goal last year, during a press conference at Fifth Third Center at One SeaGate.
"The faces of poverty shows itself in many different ways," said Captain Steven Lopes, the area service coordinator for northwest Ohio, to an audience of 50 people. "Poverty is still real today in our community."
When asked about the likelihood of reaching the fund-raising goal, Captain Lopes said, "We're praying. We're going forward believing we will."
During the 2010 holiday season, the army exceeded its $520,000 goal by raising an estimated $540,000. The proceeds fund programs that help those in need, such as people battling substance abuse or unable to afford their utility bills, organizers said.
The history of the Red Kettle dates back to 1891, when Salvation Army Capt. Joseph McFee used a kettle into which passers-by could toss in a coin or two to help feed the poor in San Francisco during Christmas. Captain McFee's idea launched a tradition that spread across the world.
This year's local campaign, which ends Dec. 24, will take place at 59 different places -- five more than 2010 -- throughout greater Toledo, including stores such as Kroger, Sam's Club, Hobby Lobby, and Big Lots.
Red Kettle drives are also under way in Wood, Ottawa, Henry, Fulton and other surrounding counties.
The campaign started on a winter-like day -- a few snowflakes falling from the sky, a forceful wind in the parking lot.
The 30-degree temperature felt so frigid, Cody Cox donated some money because he said he felt sorry for the shivering bell-ringer outside the Walmart in Oregon.
It was genuine sympathy. Mr. Cox, 21, of Rossford was wearing shorts himself.
Bell ringer Mike Perry, a custodian from South Toledo, kept warm by focusing on "mind over matter." He just pretended it was a nice, 75-degree day as he rang the bell and wished people "a God blessed day."
Mr. Perry is a veteran volunteer who has participated in the campaign for 10 years.
"I feel like when I'm doing this, I'm helping out," said Mr. Perry, 61. "A helping hand."
Chelsea Tracy, 21, of Perrysburg reached for a dollar to donate, but the wind blew it out of her hand, and she ran through the parking lot to chase it.
"You ran like a mile for that dollar," a spectator commented.
Ms. Tracy smiled.
The assistant manager at a clothing store in the Woodville Mall said she donates "here and there" during the Red Kettle drive. "Everyone deserves to have a good holiday," she said.
In an hour, about 35 people donated outside the store, giving $1 bills and change as they left with carts filled with turkeys, kitty litter, and other groceries.
But some pretended like they didn't hear the ringing of the bells, which made such a shrill noise they could be heard on the other side of the parking lot. One woman gave quarters to her children for the bubble gum machine, a few feet away from where the Salvation Army volunteer stood.
Little Brooke Rushlow, almost 2, toddled up to the Red Kettle with a dollar bill alongside her grandmother Jerri McGranahan, a 44-year-old hair stylist from Walbridge.
Even though the economy was bad and making ends meet sometimes felt like a struggle, several said they still wanted to donate when they could.
"I always do it just to help people," Ms. McGranahan said.
Contact Gabrielle Russon at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6026.