LIMA — With $41,000 collected thus far, the 20th annual Empty Stocking campaign has been a pretty good one, exceeding the average totals for the past three years. But it wasn’t a record-breaker — unless you add in the passenger van.Really. Someone gave a passenger van after reading about one family’s need in the Empty Stocking stories printed daily on The Lima News’ front page from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day.The Dec. 18 story featured James’ and Susan’s struggle with James’ multiple sclerosis. They asked for a wheelchair lift to help James get in and out of their hulking old van. A gas card or two also would help, they said, because the van tends to guzzle fuel.A Lima News reader took notice of their request. The anonymous reader had acquired a van with a wheelchair lift for her ailing husband, who had since died.“She had read the story in Sunday’s paper and called me on Monday morning,” said Lima News Marketing Coordinator Jolene Molaski. The Lima News marketing department oversees the annual campaign. “She said she’d talked it over with her son, and this was what they wanted to do because they didn’t need it and they’d rather it went to somebody who actually needed it.”Other notable non-cash contributions included a kitchen stove for Kelly, a mother of four boys whose range had quit working (her story appeared Dec. 13); and a job for Curtis, an out-of-work contractor. The employers said they were delighted with Curtis’ work. Curtis’ story was published Dec. 17. And for the fifth straight year, a group of local barbers donated dozens of shiny new bicycles.“One of the things that really got to me was a letter I got from a 17-year-old girl. She read the story about Jennifer (“Mother of 2 without job, money at Christmas,” Dec. 11), and for some reason, it just touched her,” Molaski said. “And she sent in $30. She said, ‘I can’t send any more than this, because I don’t have a job. I’m still in high school.’ But it was such a sweet gesture.”And who can forget the chocolate-covered pretzel project? Second-graders studying economics at Independence Elementary School went into business for a few days, dipping pretzel rods in chocolate, decorating them and selling them to classmates and teachers and family members. The story was published Wednesday.“I went and spoke briefly to them about the Empty Stocking Fund, and they made me a giant check and donated just over $95, almost all of it in change,” Molaski said.Lima News Marketing Director Bill Clinger said the newspaper promotes the donation campaign as a community service. All dollars and other gifts are handed over to the three participating agencies — The Cheryl Allen South Side Community Center, Bradfield Center and Lima Salvation Army — for distribution to hundreds of needy applicants. A $5,000 gift to Cheryl Allen Center helps pay for a Breakfast with Santa event where each of the nearly 200 children in attendance gets a new toy to take home. This year, more than 620 families registered for help through the Empty Stocking fund.“There are no promotion costs. There are no administrative costs,” Clinger said. “Every dollar we raise goes directly to help someone in need.”Clinger said the stories help raise the community’s awareness of its neighbors in distress.“We do a lot to promote the Empty Stocking program,” Clinger said, “But I believe that also has an impact on the awareness of the overall needs of the community. It has a trickle-down effect to the other agencies that I think, as they hear our stories, people may not donate directly to our program, it’s also benefiting others.”During its 20 years, the Empty Stocking Fund has raised more than $500,000 for charity. Add in the non-cash donations, and the net worth is closer to $750,000, Molaski said.The fund still is accepting contributions even as Christmas passes. “Those agencies that benefit from the Empty Stocking Fund, they operate year-round,” Clinger said. “They continue to need support, so if someone is still thinking about giving, they certainly may.”A final distribution of funding will take place Jan. 6.You can comment on this story at www.limaohio.com.