Hardworking people who live from paycheck to paycheck face an enormous risk. If something happens that prevents them from working, the consequences can be devastating.
"You see everything you worked for disappear," Kathleen Clark said. "You fall so far behind in your bills, you just hope they don't cut the heat off to your house."
Clark, 49, and her 45-year-old husband, Al, both worked for a living. He was a baker at the market on Niagara Falls Boulevard for many years. She worked in a restaurant. They have two sons, James, 22, and Patrick, 19.
They live in a three-bedroom house on Ashland Avenue in a poor section of Niagara Falls. Their utility bills run about $250 a month; mortgage payments nearly $400 a month. Property taxes and auto insurance for their 1988 car tack on another $150 a month.
Expenses were high; making ends meet was a tough, but they were coping. They even found a little extra to donate to local food pantries and community kitchens.
Then, in 1999, Al Clark collapsed on the job. Years of unexplained dizzy spells culminated in a massive epileptic seizure. Blow No. 1. He couldn't work anymore. He applied for Social Security disability.
It would take five years before Al Clark received his first disability check.
If Kathleen was to become the sole breadwinner, she knew she had to find a better-paying job. She went back to school and received a diploma from a business school that qualified her to work as a medical secretary.
She found a job as a receptionist at a nursing home in Lewiston. At $11 an hour, the pay wasn't great, but it beat the restaurant game.
With the costly medication her husband needed to treat his illness, expenses were higher than before and making ends meet was tougher. Now, they were barely coping.
In 2004, Kathleen Clark's chronic bad back finally gave out and she was diagnosed with a herniated disk. Blow No. 2. She had to give up her job.
"I can't do any one thing for very long," she said. "No one's going to hire me in this condition."
It was a tough break for someone who had worked since she was 13 -- putting in 60 hours a week in her mother's restaurant on Oliver Street in North Tonawanda, where her father worked for more than 20 years at the former National Grinding Wheel Co. Both parents have since died.
An operation earlier this year stabilized Kathleen Clark's spine but left her in excruciating pain, which seven different prescription pills a day fail to ease. She applied for Social Security disability. But, as her husband's found, it could take years before she receives any payments.
Their son, Patrick, is a senior at Niagara Falls High School. James works in shipping and receiving at a City of Tonawanda sporting goods store, but he's barely getting by and can't help with his parents' bills. The Clarks are overdue on several bills, including more than $200 on the water bill. Monthly expenses run about $1,300. They're trying to get by on the husband's $760-a-month disability payment.
"I went from a job where I was making $11 an hour to wondering how we're going to make it to the end of the month," Kathleen Clark said. "I even had a retirement plan."
Thanksgiving and Christmas food baskets from Niagara Community Action's food pantry on 19th Street will help them through the holiday season.
A truck from the Food Bank of Western New York arrives at the Community Action's pantry every third Thursday.
"Folks like the Clarks used to donate to food pantries," said Carol A. Palumbo, Niagara Community Action coordinator, "and now they're on the receiving end."
This is the second year the Clarks have received help from the inner-city food pantry.
As tough as it is, Kathleen Clark knows there are plenty of people worse off.
"I see women with babies waiting for the food truck to arrive," she said. "Sometimes the truck runs out of food and the people are still standing there. Thanksgiving and Christmas draw attention to their need, but these people are waiting to get something to eat every single day."
>The News Neediest Fund
How to apply for gifts:
Applications will be accepted until Dec. 14. For application sites, hours of operation and eligibility requirements, call Central Referral Service at 851-5555, Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.
Cash donations to purchase 12,000 holiday dinners and other perishable items. New, unwrapped toys for very young children.
New, unwrapped gifts for 8- to 12-yearolds such as books, electronic games, board games, crafts, gift cards, cosmetics and athletic equipment.
Where to give:
Drop-off sites for unwrapped toys include:
* The Buffalo News lobby, Washington and Scott streets; 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
* All Wegmans stores in Erie and Niagara counties; 24 hours daily
* Hamburg Fairgrounds
* Hunt Real Estate, 4363 Main St., Amherst; 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday-Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
* Summit Park Mall Customer Service Desk, 6929 Williams Road, Wheatfield
* Tops International, 7200 Niagara Falls Boulevard, Niagara Falls and Tops in Lewiston, 9060 Center St.
* The Buffalo News, 8353 Niagara Falls Boulevard at Military Road, Niagara Falls
* For large, group donations of gifts, call Deborah Patti at 849-5524.
* Cash donations may be mailed to: The News Neediest Fund, Station C Post Office, 1245 Main St., P.O. Box 444, Buffalo, NY 14209-0444.
* Donate online by going to www.buffalonews.com/neediest
The Western New York Holiday Partnership is a collaboration between The Buffalo News Neediest Fund, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo, Central Referral Services, F.A.T.H.E.R.S., Hamburg Youth Bureau, Ladies of Charity, Lancaster Youth Bureau, New Creation Fellowship, Niagara County Partnership, Response to Love Center, the Salvation Army, the USMC Toys for Tots program, the United Way, West Seneca AmeriCorps and WNY Hispanics & Friends.