The Salvation Army and the Boys and Girls Club packed the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum on Thursday in celebration of its Kettle Kick-Off, one of the biggest fundraising events of the holiday season.

From Nov. 15 to Christmas Eve, volunteers with the Salvation Army of Aiken (including Santa Claus) will stand outside stores like Walmart and Kroger and ring bells to encourage patrons make donations for the Red Kettle Campaign. 

According to Corps Officer Lt. Randull Tiller, this is the most important fundraising event for the Salvation Army of Aiken.

"Usually, this fundraiser can make up to 70% of our funds," Tiller said. "It really determines what programs we can have, like character building for the children."

Last year, in part due to Thanksgiving falling a week early, Tiller said the organization was able to reach its fundraising goal. Tiller is worried that, without that extra week, the organization may not make its $83,000 fundraising goal this year.

"If we don't raise all the money we need, then some of those programs might not be here next year," Tiller said.

The funds from the campaign will go toward numerous projects for people in need in Aiken County, such as the Salvation Army homeless shelter, the Boys and Girls Club's new teen center, soup kitchens, food pantries, programs for children 12 and younger, and social services.

At depot, children from the Boys and Girls Club were able to visit Santa Claus, learn more about the Kettle Kick-Off and see train displays.

Clark McCants, who chairs the advisory board for the Salvation Army of Aiken, said the fundraising campaign has been around for 128 years.

"One way we help this community is through this marvelous program," McCants said.

S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, was present during the event and made the first donation during the Kettle Kick-Off. Taylor supports the event in part to honor his father who was a frequent participant in the Red Kettle Campaign and got him involved with it as a young boy.

"A lot of us – we'll all stand out there in front of Walmart and Kroger and ring those bells," Taylor said. "It's amazing the number of people who walk by and put their money in there … people are really so generous."

Tiller said volunteers will be collecting donations at area Walmart and Kroger stores through Christmas Eve.

For more information, call the Salvation Army of Aiken's office at 803-641-4141.

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.