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Community opens hearts and wallets for the News Neediest

Just like Santa, 19-year-old Bailey Critoph had a lengthy trip to make on Christmas Eve to continue a longstanding tradition.

Starting when he was only 2, Critoph has gone to The Buffalo News lobby every year with his grandmother, Ann K. Lupo, of Buffalo, to celebrate the true Christmas spirit by donating toys for children through the annual News Neediest Fund.

That tradition continued again this year – but just barely.

Critoph, a sophomore at City College of New York, took a train home to Buffalo on Thursday evening, racing to beat the Christmas Eve deadline to place his donation under the big Christmas tree in the lobby of The News building.

With the help of the ridiculously mild weather, he arrived home on time, reaching The News at about 6:45 p.m.

“I definitely wanted to do it,” the teenager said, after placing a Wilson NCAA basketball under the tree.

“I don’t like missing traditions,” he added. “The best traditions to have are the ones that help people in need.”

That’s the spirit behind The News Neediest Fund, and Critoph was one of thousands of Western New Yorkers to respond to the appeal again this year.

Among other donors, a retired mechanic donated his tools. Some workers gave to The News Neediest Fund instead of exchanging office gifts with their coworkers. And toys continued to appear beneath the Christmas tree in The News lobby, even after the last truck was packed to make its deliveries.

In all, thousands of people gave to The News Neediest Fund this year.

“The response has been wonderful,” said Nicole Morris-McLaughlin, promotions coordinator for The News.

The fund was on track to close this year’s campaign with $180,000 in monetary donations, which went to the Food Bank of Western New York.

The News Neediest Fund is part of the Western New York Holiday Partnership, a collaboration of large-toy-giveaway programs in Erie and Niagara counties.

More than 10,000 children were registered for gifts this year, and 98 percent of them received gifts to be put under their trees. The other 2 percent will receive gifts for the Three Kings celebration in early January, according to Kelly Dodd of the partnership.

Traditions like the one carried on by the Lupo-Critoph family keep The News Neediest Fund vibrant.

Lupo started taking her grandson to the Christmas tree in The Buffalo News lobby 17 years ago. He learned that his family is blessed, and that others are in need.

“I had sort of a challenging childhood,” Lupo said. “But no matter what, my mother always made a big deal out of Christmas. She wanted that to be wonderful for us, and it always was.”

But when she was older and read the heartwrenching stories about struggling families, she wanted those children to have a happy Christmas, too. And she wanted her grandson, Bailey Critoph, to learn something about life.

When she first took him to the lobby, he was captivated by the large tree and twinkling ornaments. Later, Bailey was joined by his younger sister, Claudia, on their annual trip to The News lobby.

As he did this year, Critoph picks out gifts an older boy might enjoy, like a football or basketball. Once again, grandmother and grandson looked forward to the tradition this year, until Lupo learned her grandson wouldn’t be home until dinnertime on Christmas Eve.

And then came the scare.

“All of a sudden I found out that Bailey would not be home until dinnertime on Christmas Eve,” Lupo said.

That started her almost-frantic quest to find out what time The News lobby would be closed on Christmas Eve and what time the train from New York would arrive here. The train, scheduled to arrive at about 6:30 p.m., was right on time, and so were Lupo and her two teen grandchildren.

Critoph wants to go into television and production, and he works at an after-school program in the South Bronx, helping students with their homework. The program also serves an after-school meal for children living in homes with empty pantries.

It didn’t dawn on him that arriving the evening before Christmas might pose a problem in donating toys. “It became a ‘Mission Impossible’ moment, like how are we going to do this?” he said.

No problem, though. The family’s late donations will be used for the Three Kings celebration.

And the family tradition continues.

“If I do live here,” Critoph said, “I will continue the tradition as long as I can, with my kids or grandkids or whatever.”

Another effort worthy of note includes GO Bike Buffalo’s donation of 40 refurbished kids bikes after a daylong build event at the community bike workshop.

The Marines alone collected 90,770 toys at 89 drop-box collection sites for Toys for Tots, with major donations from Basil Auto Group, Cellino and Barnes, Toys R Us, the University at Buffalo, UPS, Wegmans and Five Below.

“The generosity of the community is always slightly overwhelming,” Dodd said.

The season also is captured in the quiet generosity of Sal and Mary DiCenzo of Depew, who were touched by the story of a laid-off mechanic whose $10,000 worth of tools were stolen. They had to be coaxed to tell their story publicly.

DiCenzo, a retired mechanic, decided to give his tools to the father of three.

“I’ve got all this stuff, and the wife has been after me to declutter this stuff,” he said. “I thought it would be a nice gesture for Christmas.”

Del Summers stopped over to the DiCenzos’, and he looked at the tools.

“This is going to get me going, Sal,” he said.

Since he knows that when he finds a job, he probably will be working in cold weather, DiCenzo also gave him a warm jacket and vest, and got something together for the kids and wrapped it. He put a box of food together for the family, including a frozen turkey.

DiCenzo grew up in Buffalo, which he said has the reputation for giving.

“I think this is my time. The stuff is here,” he said. “I have to do something.”

He just felt bad for the guy, he said.

“It’s the season for sharing in God’s blessing. We were able to do something,” DiCenzo said.

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