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FACILITY IS HOME FOR HOLIDAYS

The holidays can be hectic under the best of circumstances. But imagine cooking, caring for and educating 63 children under the same roof.

Consider the fact that many of those same children have been abused, are emotionally disturbed or learning disabled, and the task becomes more daunting.

Some are estranged from their families; for many, the joyous holiday times simply reflect all that they lack in their everyday lives.

Their plights represent a unique challenge for the staffers at the Wyndham Lawn Home for Children, who do their best to make the holidays a cheerful time for clients of the residential treatment center.

"These kids feel many of the same pressures many others feel at the holidays," Wyndham Lawn social worker Edward Gargala said. "There's stress; there's a lot to accomplish in a short time.

"They hope for the holidays to be positive when, in real life, their situation often isn't. Their life probably isn't perfect. I'm sure most would tell you that a year ago, they didn't expect to be in residential treatment."

Children from across Western New York end up at Wyndham Lawn following referrals from Family Court, the Department of Social Services or the committees on special education of their local school districts.

Once there, they spend an average of 11 to 14 months in intensive counseling and education programs aimed at alleviating whatever problems they may be experiencing, and returning them to their families.

Some have had problems with their parents. Others have been neglected, are experiencing difficulties in school or have run away, Wyndham Lawn Development/Public Relations Director Paul Flach said.

"Many have very serious problems that, if not addressed here, would land them in a child psychiatric center," Flach said.

At Wyndham Lawn -- which began in 1871 as the Lockport Home for the Friendless, a refuge for Civil War orphans and widows -- kids are educated in classrooms with one teacher and one teacher's aide for each six students.

"The goal is reunification of the family, so the (children) can function independently and make it in society," Flach said.

But the holidays represent a special challenge to that mission.

"One of the first things we do is make every effort to see that each child goes home to his or her family" during Christmas, Wyndham Lawn Executive Director Richard Pyc said. "If not for an extended stay, then at least for the day."

If that's not possible -- and it sometimes isn't, because parents are sometimes as troubled as the children -- then the staff tries to provide "the Christmas experience," Gargala said.

That might mean taking those left behind out to dinner and a movie. Children decorate the facility and receive gifts. Sometimes staffers even take the children back to their own homes to share the holidays with them.

The children are also involved in a "Pledge Night" program, in which each child contributes someearnings from the work training program to a selected local charity.

"We try to make it an extra special day for the kids here," Pyc said. "We are acutely aware that the holidays can pose a problem, can make the kids feel down. We try to make it as homey as possible."

"We don't try to replace families. We just try to provide the Christmas experience," Gargala said. "The stresses and pressure don't go away at Christmas, and sometimes they're accentuated. It can be hard."

"The holidays are a national time of reflection and thought," Flach said. "While most of us are counting our blessings, it just makes their situation all the more real to these kids."

Wyndham Lawn has served more than 10,000 children since its beginning. One of the newest strategies employed at the facility is Preventive Services, Flach said.

"We're trying to prevent" their eventual placement here, Flach said, by intervening with at-risk children.