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Setting out to make life better Annual fund drive kicks off to aid those battling poverty

We've seen the numbers, the staggering fact that 25,955 poor children live in Buffalo, along with thousands of others who dwell in poverty in Western New York's suburbs and rural areas.

We've seen the faces, in an in-depth series in The Buffalo News that focused largely on 3-year-old Kae'Sean Fields and children of other local families struggling to escape the grip of poverty.

Doubt no longer is possible about poverty affecting our youngest residents and plaguing this community, considered the second poorest big city in the nation.

Other News stories have shown that some schools can make a difference, but that government has a limited ability to dent the cycle of poverty.

So what can the average person do?

Get involved, as a donor or volunteer, in efforts like those of The News Neediest Fund.
The fund kicked off its 26th annual holiday drive Tuesday with the ceremonial lighting of the Christmas tree in The News lobby, amid the recognition that the fund -- along with others like it -- has to do more each year.

At Tuesday's ceremony, children from the HSBC Family Center by Bright Horizons stacked gifts around the lobby Christmas tree.

As they did, the Houghton Academy School 69 choir sang holiday favorites under the direction of Karen Williams, choir director.

Last year, the fund purchased holiday dinners for 12,000 local people, through the Food Bank of Western New York and 56 local food pantries. That cost an estimated $150,000.

Another $550,000 in toys and other essentials was donated to needy families through the Western New York Holiday Partnership.

News Neediest Fund organizers were gratified that last year's fundraising efforts kept pace with those from previous years, following the surprise October storm that figured to strain the budgets of those making donations.

But it remains a sobering realization for all such funds, that the need continues to escalate -- along with the economic pressures on those who are fortunate enough to donate.

"Our neighborhood is getting poorer," said Mary Guzowski, treasurer of the Black Rock-Riverside Food Pantry in Buffalo. "We're getting more and more clients. A lot of them are moving from other sections of the city. We've got a lot of single people, a lot of single parents and a lot of big families."

There's a double whammy when a neighborhood -- or a community -- gets poorer. More are in need, and fewer can pitch in to help, at least financially.

Western New Yorkers see the economic pinch every day, when they buy their groceries, fill their gas tanks and pay their utility bills.

Yet, for those lucky enough to be employed, having to pay larger portions of their own health insurance might eat up any wage increase.

"Every year the need is increasing, but the folks we rely on to make cash donations or buy toys are being stretched more than they were last year," said Michele A. Magaris, United Way project manager for The News Neediest Fund.

Fund officials have used two major sales pitches while facing the difficulty of raising funds from an increasingly pinched donor base during the competitive holiday-giving season.

Three years ago, after its previous fund drive had dropped to $111,000 in cash donations, the fund became more aggressive in its marketing, sending close to 1,500 letters to previous donors.

The fund also continues to stress the rewards of giving and the small personal sacrifices that can make a difference in others' lives.

"We're asking people to find something they can do without -- that extra latte [every day] or the daily trip to the candy machine at work -- and donate that amount of money or pick up an extra toy for a needy kid," Magaris said.

Through the News Neediest Fund and other projects dealing with local children, Buffalo News President Warren T. Colville has been struck by the severe need, seeing young pupils with no books and others whose families literally live out of cardboard boxes.

"There are such rewards," he said of the giving process. "When you give, it comes back to you. Even though it may hurt a little, you realize how much it helps other people."

People who can't afford to make donations or buy toys can give something else -- their time.

While volunteering is a commitment that often lasts year-round, fund officials realize that some people can't make that big a commitment.

"Closer to home, look in your own backyard," suggested Magaris, from the United Way. "Is there a neighbor who could use an extra hand with chores or might appreciate a homemade treat? Do you know where the closest local food pantry is? They may need help stocking shelves or packing bags. Most schools and churches do special things for local families during the holidays. Check with yours to see if you can help out."

Every little bit helps.

News Staff Reporter Mark Sommer contributed to this report.

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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