The Pulaski County Salvation Army Service Extension Unit held its annual Tree of Lights Campaign kickoff at Citizen's Mortgage on Thursday.

Waynesville Mayor Luge Hardman, who is serving as the campaign's chair this year, kicked a football to get the Christmas donation season going.

Hardman said that she would be calling St. Robert Mayor George Sanders to challenge him and the city of St. Robert to a competition to see who can raise the most money and ring the bells to help meet the organization's $55,000 goal this year.

In addition to raising money for the Salvation Army's benevolence fund, which is distributed by Good Samaritan Emergency Services Coordinator Vicki Hurlbutt, the Christmas season is a time for the organization to give gifts at local nursing homes.

Twyla Cordry is asking for donations of sugar-free candy, packages of peanuts, packages of crackers and cheese, and other individually wrapped items to fill bags to be handed out to residents in nursing homes throughout the county.

Cordry reported that the gift bags were popular in the 2011 Christmas season and offered volunteers a chance to sit with residents and visit during delivery. Cordry would like to invite anyone interested in helping to stuff bags or donate items to stop by or call Citizen's Mortgage to set things up.

Chairman Gary Porter said that the organization was expecting to give out around 900 food baskets at Christmas this year, up from the 763 given out last year, because of the rising need for benevolence vouchers.

Ken Bassett said that $52,555 in benevolence money was used to pay utilities, gasoline, pharmacy, bus tickets, eye glasses, rent and other miscellaneous items people were in need of. Of that total, $31,157 was used to pay utilities alone.

Bassett said he just wanted the public to know that the Salvation Army wasn't just about Christmas, that it helps people in need every day and the money raised from the bell ringing helps fund that.

Bell ringing will begin at Price Cutter on Nov. 17, but won't start at Wal-Mart until Nov. 23, after Thanksgiving. People interested in signing up to ring the bells are invited to do so at the Salvation Army's new website or call their local bell ringing chairperson.

A calendar is available on the website to see what slots are left open for people interested in signing up to ring the bells. Bell ringing chairperson Jim Mathews reported at Thursday's meeting that 240 hours out of a total of 660 had been assigned.

To call and sign up to ring the bells contact:

Waynesville/St. Robert - Jim Mathews - 774-2757

Crocker - Ruth Foster - 736-2391

Dixon - Helen Beydler - 759-6519

Richland - Tom Murray - 765-3373