TIFTON -- As of 12:30 p.m. Thursday, this year's United Way campaign is officially off and running toward the agency's goal of raising $350,000 this year.

The money raised stays in the Greater Tiftarea, aiding 26 agencies in the South Central Georgia chapter's six-county area.

There are some changes in this year's campaign to help achieve that goal. The campaign will last just 11 weeks, ending on Oct. 31, which means that area businesses and other donors need to make their contributions now, said United Way campaign chairman Frank Sayles Jr.

"We're very excited about this year's fund-drive campaign. Our goal of $350,000 is challenging, but it's attainable," Sayles said.

"We live in a caring community, and the services United Way supports are basic to the kind of community we all wish to have."

A "racing" theme dominates this year's campaign. Replacing the traditional thermometer, which has been used to gauge funds raised, the United Way will have a racing oval with percentages of the overall goal marked at different places on the track.

During Thursday's campaign kickoff at Veterans' Park downtown, Sayles waved a green flag and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines; the 2003 campaign is under way."

At the kickoff, United Way officials, board members and volunteers were joined by representatives of the agencies that receive financial aid.

United Way board president Luz Marti spoke at the ceremony and simplified the process of giving that would make this chapter one of the nation's largest charitable success stories.

"If someone donated one hour's pay each month at minimum wage ($5.15), that would equal $61.80 a year," she said. "If each working person in the counties served by this agency did that, we would raise over $3 million."

The campaign is already off to a strong start as companies and donors dubbed "Pacesetters" have donated $65,500, or more than 18 percent of the total goal.

"These Pacesetters, with their substantial contributions, actually set the pace for the community," Sayles said. "We're off to a roaring start."

Also new this year are the United Way's "Rising Stars." They are volunteers who their local companies have selected as up-and-coming stars in the workplace and in the community. The Rising Stars will work with the campaign as United Way ambassadors.

Thursday's crowd heard from Sayles and Marti as well as United Way executive director Carol Johnson. Musical entertainment was provided by Stan Smith, music ministries director at First United Methodist Church in Tifton.

"I think it's very important to start the campaign with a lot of enthusiasm and there's a lot of energy there," said Marti. "We have a good, young group working with us this year and they will have a great impact on the campaign. This will give them an opportunity to get their feet wet and develop a taste for it. I'm very excited about the campaign."

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