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TOY DRIVE WILL BENEFIT CHILDREN OF SOLDIERS SERVING OVERSEAS

A toy drive for children of area soldiers serving overseas has been launched by the owners of a new Riverside gift shop.

And a Cheektowaga community group is gearing up to help families of area military men and women stationed abroad.

At least 600 children of Army National Guard and Reserve personnel face a holiday season without a mother or a father who will be on duty in Iraq, Afghanistan or other overseas outposts, said James Bacon, who last week opened Elegant House at 832 Tonawanda St. in partnership with his fiancee, Joanne Ambellan, and Laura Crandall.

Bacon, who moved here from Fort Worth, Texas, after striking up an Internet romance with Ambellan, hopes to improve on a toy drive he helped organize five years ago in Nashville, Tenn.

Gifts of toys and cash will be accepted at Elegant House until the week before Christmas from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Call 874-0990 for information.

Monetary donations will be used to buy age-appropriate items at KB Toys, which is sponsoring the project. The tentative plan is for Santa Claus to distribute the gifts to Army families Dec. 17 in the Masten Avenue Armory.

The project drew a thumbs-up from Sheriff Patrick Gallivan and Mayor Anthony M. Masiello, who stood by as Bacon, Ambellan and Crandall opened the toy drive.

"We are fortunate to have people defending us; their families are not so fortunate," Gallivan observed.

The season always brings appeals for assistance for the needy -- but not specifically for military families, Masiello added.

"There is a void to fill," he said.

Other area military families will be helped this season through "Operation Touch Home," an idea that came from Sgt. Nick Goff, the son of Robin Goff, vice chairwoman of the Cheektowaga North Alliance.

That organization had planned to send soldiers boxes of toiletries and other necessities.

Goff, a University at Buffalo engineering student and member of the Army Reserve's 98th Division, said he has enough toothbrushes and shampoo to get by.

The alliance, formed in the summer to combat a community drainage problem, turned to collecting items for military families whose soldiers won't be home for the holidays or for special birthdays. Robin Goff said the initiative will not only help spouses and children but ease soldiers' minds.

Gift certificates, disposable cameras, chocolate, stationery, stamps and photo frames top the wish list. Nonperishable food and cash also will be welcome. Money raised will be donated to Veterans Affairs Medical Center on behalf of the families to support counseling and rehabilitation programs.

Donations will be accepted through Dec. 17 at Mother of Divine Grace Catholic Church, 120 Old Maryvale Drive, Cheektowaga, or Ziggy's Taco and Subs, 3975 Main St., Amherst. The group will gather in the church Dec. 19 to wrap gift baskets. The 98th Division Family Support Network and Mayfair Sales will help deliver them.

e-mail: tbuckham@buffnews.com and bobrien@buffnews.com

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