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Nothing nice happened to Paula Mecura during the first 22 years of her life.

The last time she, at age 6, saw her father, he was going to prison for having raped her.

Her mother was an alcoholic.

The inevitable disintegration of the Massachusetts family led to a succession of foster homes -- seven in all -- and boarding schools. She soon lost all contact with her seven brothers and sisters.

At 12, she found herself on the streets, homeless and addicted to alcohol and drugs. This would be her lifestyle for the next decade.

Arriving here in the cab of a truck four years ago, she quickly made her way to the drug scene. She was admitted to the Buffalo Psychiatric Center for treatment three times.

Then her life took an unexpected turn.

Despite a series of miscarriages that supposedly had left her sterile, she became pregnant. For the first time, she felt a sense of purpose.

"I said, 'it's either kill myself and the child inside me, or live a happy life,' " she said.

She quit booze and drugs, and in February 1988 gave birth to her first child, Amanda, an energetic, affecting imp with brown hair and brown eyes. Sixteen months ago, Joshua arrived -- another brown-haired, brown-eyed moppet.

Their welfare existence in a sparsely furnished project apartment is difficult. Both of the children's fathers disappeared "real quick" after she became pregnant, says Ms. Mecura, 24, whose bright blue eyes belie a deeply ingrained cynicism.

She still is learning to like herself, and life.

But the kids have given her a stake in the future. She recently got her first job, as a convenience store cashier, although she quit after few days because the manager made her and other employees work 10 hours straight without a break. Even that experience helped her gain some self-respect.

"I usually let people push me around, but
not this time," she said. Encouraged by her neighbors, Monica and Linda, she plans to search for another job and to work toward a high school diploma in night school. She also is trying to get in touch with a brother, Mark, who she believes was adopted and is living on Cape Cod.

Ms. Mecura hopes eventually to get into nursing, specifically to help the elderly and the homeless friends she left behind.

"If I could take every single homeless person off the streets, I would," she said. "People think they're bums, but they have hearts and souls, like the rest of us."

She's also determined to escape the welfare system, which "treats people like garbage."

But she faces more immediate concerns, namely Christmas. As less fortunate families know, poverty does not observe the holiday. Unless unexpected help arrives there will be no toys or much-needed clothes for Amanda, who's speech-impaired, and Josh. Not even a tree.

Putting Christmas dinner on the table will even be a challenge. Ms. Mecura recently was notified that, for some unexplained reason, her family's food-stamp allotment is being cut -- to $68 a month.

"I don't care about me," she said. "I just want my kids to have a decent Christmas. As long as I see the smiling faces on Christmas Day, that makes me feel important. As long as I have them, that's all I want -- all I need."

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