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Santa's bag desperately needs hundreds of toys from The News Neediest Fund, or thousands of poor children in Erie County will wake up Christmas morning to disappointment.

So far, the fund has received only 1,200 toys for almost 20,000 children.

Expensive toys aren't sought. A small stuffed animal, a book, a matchbox car, a puzzle -- just something under the tree, if there is a tree, and if not, in a stocking hung on a door jamb.

To date, the names of more than 3,300 families have been sent to the fund. The recommendations come from shelters, soup kitchens, churches and human service agencies vouching for their need.

"That's more than double the number received last year," said Michelle Magaris of the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, which coordinates distribution of the fund's donations.

"An average of four to five children per family adds up to 18,000 to 20,000 children. We have counted each and every toy given so far to the drive . . . counted them twice hoping we were wrong, but there are only 1,200. To add to the problem, kind-hearted people have donated huge stuffed animals that will be a problem to distribute. The homes where our children live are barely large enough for the family, let alone a life-size stuffed toy.

"Small toys are what we need, and not expensive toys. Toys for children 13 and younger so at least all of the younger children will
receive something on Christmas."

Those people attending the 2 p.m. Saturday performance of "The Nutcracker" at Shea's, sponsored by The Buffalo News, are asked to bring a toy for the Neediest Fund. There will be barrels at the theater for the donations.

Also Saturday, from noon to 3 p.m., WBEN Radio will have a live remote broadcast from Southgate Plaza, asking for toy donations for the fund.

All Key Banks and Convenient Food Marts throughout the county are also accepting donations in addition to those listed in today's paper.

Ms. Magaris said that schools or organizations that want to do major toy drives need only call the Neediest Fund at 849-3400 and trucks from the Erie County Sheriff's Department, Buffalo Department of Human Resources or National Fuel will make pickups.

Ms. Magaris said that while more food is always needed, "The area's four major food chains have been more than generous, as usual, so we should be able to fill a basket for each family. Cash donations are always more than welcome."

Distribution of toys will begin Monday and will continue as long as the toys last. Volunteers for the Neediest Fund hope this will be until every child can expect a visit from Santa.

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