PEORIA — Nearly 1,700 volunteers from central Illinois businesses and not-for-profits spent the day Friday lending a hand at United Way partner agencies to help kick off the annual Heart of Illinois United Way campaign.

This year's traditional Day of Caring activities contributed more than 6,600 volunteer hours at those agencies, setting the tone for the ongoing efforts to encourage people to continue to give back to the broader community.

"Our community relies on the strength of the Heart of Illinois United Way," organization board chairman Tim Neuhauser said at the campaign kickoff breakfast at the Peoria Civic Center. "As the largest non-governmental funder of local and human care programs, our organization is vital to the health and well-being of people throughout central Illinois."

Though Friday marked the formal kick-off, more than $1.4 million has already been raised from 42 area "pacesetter" companies and not-for-profits that started fundraising efforts over the summer. Last year's efforts netted more than $11.5 million, a campaign record — and particularly important given that many not-for-profits faced challenges during the multi-year state budget impasse.

As in recent years, the lead-up to the formal start of the campaign has also included a food drive, which in the past has annually brought in more than 300,000 pounds of food — enough for more than 200,000 meals, according to the United Way.

"Through the community's generosity and support, we will not only be able to help people in need in central Illinois, we'll also be able to reach those in disaster zones who need it the most," Neuhauser said.

Chris Kaergard can be reached at ckaergard@pjstar.com or 686-3255. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard.