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Kathy Patrizi swallowed her pride three years ago and went on welfare after working in the food service industry for 20 years.

She hates it.

Excluding food stamps, Mrs. Patrizi, 43, and her two sons live on $309 a month from social services. That simply doesn't cover the bills and household needs.

Sometimes the food stamps run out, and Mrs. Patrizi must turn to a church outreach program. She could take a part-time job, but if she makes more than $25 a week, her meager public assistance level is reduced.

She can't stand it anymore.

For two years, Mrs. Patrizi has followed a carefully mapped-out plan to get herself and her children off public assistance. Heaven help anybody who gets in her way.

Mrs. Patrizi has spent the past year and a half working toward an associate's degree at Erie Community College. She wants a career in criminal justice. Right now, she's spending 17 hours a week at school and is maintaining a 3.2 average.

But being ambitious means her eldest son, Nat, 8, is a latchkey child. He locks the house in the mornings and lets himself in at night before his mother gets home from school.

"I'm uneasy doing that, but what else can I do?" Mrs. Patrizi said. She says she can count on her neighbors to keep an eye out for her boy. If he gets scared for any reason while he's alone, he knows to go to one of their homes.

Mrs. Patrizi also knows her son keenly feels the absence of a male figure in the household at this point in his life. She is estranged from Nat's father. Three-year-old Josh's father died tragically in Virginia.

Now, Mrs. Patrizi can only depend on herself.

The only way she is able to attend college is through a special Erie County program that pays for Josh's day care. Her little boy accompanies her to the downtown campus in Buffalo and can stay right in the same building while she's listening to her lectures or taking tests.

The program allows parents on public assistance with children younger than 6 to finish their education. It pays for day care and lends a hand with transportation costs. The idea is to get people trained and into the work force.

Mrs. Patrizi dreams of becoming a court clerk or a probation or parole officer. She wants to finish her associates degree at ECC and transfer to Buffalo State.

But now, with all New York State's budget troubles, she's worried that ECC might cut back on the criminal justice program. And the county only pays for day care until she finishes her two-year program.

"The gravy comes when you get that four-year degree," Mrs. Patrizi said. "I think they should encourage anybody who wants to finish school. I think they could reduce the welfare rolls by one-third. There are people out there who want out (of welfare)."

With her goal always before her, she studies and struggles along. Nat and Josh both celebrate birthdays in December.

"We not only have Christmas to deal with -- we have birthdays," Mrs. Patrizi sighed. To save money, she usually has one party for both children.

On a recent trip to the store, she winced as she looked at the price of the toys her children have requested from Santa Claus this year.

Nat yearns desperately for a new bicycle his mother simply cannot afford -- even if it was on layaway for six months, she said. The price tag on an electronic battleship game was $50. A simple bucket of building blocks was $15, she said.

She's always had a live Christmas tree for her children, but even that is in doubt this year.

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