The United Way of Aiken County is aiming higher. The organization announced a goal of $2,524,850 for its 2013 fundraising campaign during a kickoff luncheon on Friday at Newberry Hall.

“We're hoping that this is the minimum and that we are going to well exceed it,” said United Way President Sharon Rodgers.

The organization had a lower fundraising goal in 2012 of $2,433,789 and ended up collecting $3,005,584.

“We're hoping to get back to there or close to it,” Rodgers said. “The hope is always to surpass the goal because we want to make sure that the folks in our community have resources available to them when they need them.”

The money raised by the United Way is used to support more than 50 critical need programs locally. The organization has 32 partner agencies. They include the Aiken Area Council on Aging, Children's Place, Helping Hands, Hitchcock Healthcare, The Salvation Army of Aiken and more.

This year, the theme for the fundraising kickoff event was United Way Under the Sea.

Newberry Hall was decorated with seashells and photographs of marine life that had been taken by Gayle Lofgren, who is the executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Aiken County.

Wesley Hightower, a member of the Aiken County Board of Education and the United Way's 2013 fundraising campaign chair, wore a costume that made him look like King Triton from the Disney movie “The Little Mermaid.”

Students from the Crosby-Miller School of Dance performed while dressed as lobsters. The East Aiken School of the Arts Shooting Stars Chorus also entertained the crowd. Some of the children in the singing group wore sea turtle costumes, and some were decked out in red shirts and hats with eyes on stalks that made them resemble the crab Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid.”

After the Shooting Stars finished their presentation, adults wearing crab hats brought out replicas of life buoys that were used to reveal the United Way's 2013 fundraising campaign's goal. Seven of the life buoys had numbers on them and one had a dollar sign.

“I do not know about you, but I know that I am fired up and ready to go,” Hightower said. “Over the next two months, there will be a lot of talk about making the goal, but the real reason that we put forth such an effort is because the people of Aiken County depend on us for the services and the programs that improve the quality of their lives.”

The kickoff luncheon's program included an announcement about the fundraising campaign's special events. The first on the list of seven is the sixth annual Labor Day BBQ Cook-Off, which will be held on Monday at the Newberry Street Festival Center from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Also on the calendar is a new event, Shop Today for the United Way. It is scheduled for Sept. 26 in downtown Aiken.

“We are just so thrilled that the community is again so supportive,” Rodgers said. “We are looking forward to another successful campaign.”

Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.