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Something told Eric Dorman that Christmas was going to be a bummer, without brightly wrapped treasures waiting for him and his sisters and brother under a glittering tree.

Taking matters into his own hands, the 12-year-old walked to a department store and lifted $100 worth of much-needed clothing.

"He must've overheard us talking about not being able to buy much for Christmas," says his father, Ronald. "The kids in school pick on him because he doesn't have trendy jeans or sneakers."

Thinking the boy had run away, Ron and his wife, Diane, called in
state police. When Eric turned up with the new duds a trooper returned them to the store, no questions asked.

The inability to buy clothes for their four children, also including Jennifer, 9, Ron Jr., 7 and Julie, 4, is merely one facet of the dilemma facing the Dormans as Christmas nears.

Two months ago the Cattaraugus County family said goodbye to welfare after nine years on and off the dole. Ron, a janitor, and Diane, who took a job this fall as a school bus driver, were making enough money to scratch out a living, although they were still recovering from a 1987 house fire that wiped out their possessions.

But in November, one month after getting off public assistance, the couple suffered another setback. Both Ron and Diane had their work hours reduced. His pay fell from $134 a week to $100 and hers from $124 to about $85.

For a family already struggling to make ends meet at a level well below federal poverty guidelines, a $73 drop in income is critical.

After living for more than a year in a cramped two-bedroom apartment, where the parents slept on a couch, the Dormans had moved to a more spacious apartment. Now they faced not only higher rent but steeper utility bills.

They're being squeezed so tightly that each month's food stamp allotment stretches just two weeks. "We're down to a package of hamburger and a package of hot dogs for the rest of this month," Diane says.

Naturally, her old car and her husband's truck have both needed expensive repairs recently.

"Ever since I went to work, things have gone downhill," Diane says. "Here both of us are trying to work and make a go of it, and we're not getting anywhere."

A smiling, good-natured woman, she speaks more out of bewilderment than anger. The irony is too much to bear.

"It's just that we don't want to go back on welfare," she sighs.

Now the family once more must depend on outside help to get through the holidays, much as they did a year ago when relatives and Ron's co-workers stepped forward with food and toys.

"You don't know who your friends are until something bad happens," Ron says.

If the Dormans could write to Santa at this late date, they'd ask for better health for Julie and Ron Jr., who have speech impairments; Jennifer, who is asthmatic and Eric, whose heart murmur worries them.

Next on the list would be winter coats for the two older youngsters and boots and winter pajamas for the two littlest.

"My biggest wish is to see the kids have a good Christmas," Diane says.

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