"There were some grave concerns over the obstacles we have to face this year."
And, as United Way began to visit area factories and businesses to solicit donations from employees, those fears began to take on human faces. As they made their pitches to workers to contribute an hour's pay a month to the greater good, they encountered people uncertain about their own financial well being and, in some cases, looking for help themselves.
"People we go to speak to about our campaign are having trouble coping with their own situations," Suttles said. "They're worried about layoffs. They're worried about the holidays. And it's always the ones who make the least who give the most."
Jane Boyd, United Way's community investment director, added, "What were seeing is that the agencies that deal with basic necessities like food, utilities and heating costs are seeing people they have never seen before come in who are really feeling the pinch this year."
The Family Services Center in Danville is a United Way-supported agency that provides short-term emergency financial assistance to help people make it through the rough patches.
Director Crystal McPherson said she knows what a difficult challenge United Way faces this year from listening to people seeking assistance at the center.
"I hear it time and time again: 'I usually give to the United Way, but this year I need some help myself,'" McPherson said.
Yet, for all the uneasy feelings, results from the early campaigns have been encouraging. Workers are finding a will and a way to pitch in.
Places such as McDowell Health, National City Bank, Hobart and Centre College have increased their giving this year, Settles said. And Meggett Aircraft Braking Systems in Danville raised $7,376 in its first-ever United Way effort.
"What we've seen and encountered so far is an unbelievable sense of resiliency," Suttles said. "It's neighbor helping neighbor."
Though buoyed by the positive early signs, Suttles cautioned that United Way's $1.3-million goal is still a long way from being met and the badly damaged economy is likely to cause more hardships for more people before things turn for the better.
"I don't want to present a false sense of security," she said. "We still have a long way to go."
There is evidence that many social service agencies will be taxed this year like never before to meet the needs of the growing rolls of people pinched by financial strain. Here are a few examples:
* The offices of community action agencies have been overflowing with people who need help paying their winter utility bills.
* At the Salvation Army, 530 people have signed up to receive Christmas food boxes this year, compared to 460 last year, said Lt. Dan Nelson. And the number of children participating in the Angel Tree gift program this season is 997, up from 876 last year.
* Tom Butler, a volunteer at Danville's food bank at First Baptist Church, said its shelves were bare earlier this month before the community responded to a newspaper article and helped restock them. Many of those partaking of the food bank's offerings are newcomers, he said.
"The economy has caught them in its clutches. As it has gotten worse, we've been seeing a lot of folks who certainly did not expect to be in this position," Butler said.
McPherson said the Family Services Center is swelling with first-time clients in need of a financial shot in the arm to help them pay their bills or buy food during the holiday season.
"I've bee here three years and never had to buy new folders before. I always recycle them when we purge clients off our list," she said. "But I just had to buy some new ones and I'm going through them pretty fast."
One of McPherson's recent clients, Carol Jackson of Danville, is not new to the office. Johnson completed the center's budget counseling program in September and thought she was on her way to self sufficiency but was ambushed by medical expenses and wound up back at the center for help paying her November electricity bill.