With "Silent Night" playing in the background and barely a dry eye in the congregation, Joan Broughman lived out her Christmas dream late Wednesday in St. Adalbert's Basilica.
For five minutes, she was wheeled around the church, cradling a Baby Jesus statue in her arms, never taking her eyes off the symbol of God. Then she handed the statue to Sister Mary Johnice, who placed it in the manger of the Nativity scene.
"I felt beautiful, beautiful," Ms. Broughman said later. "I held Baby Jesus and kissed him. He was smiling at me. I was so happy that I could come to church and see Jesus. Maybe God can help me now."
Ms. Broughman's Christmas dream was one of hundreds made possible by good old-fashioned Western New York generosity, through The News Neediest Fund.
The fund, administered by the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, ended its Christmas-season campaign by touching some 11,500 families. The fund raised $87,500 in cash and delivered 12,000 ham dinners, 25,000 toys and 20,000 pounds of food to the needy.
But perhaps none of the gifts is as touching as the Baby Jesus statue placed in Ms. Broughman's arms.
In a News Neediest story earlier this month, Ms. Broughman said the only thing she wanted for Christmas was to carry Baby Jesus down the aisle at Christmas Eve Mass. That was no easy task.
Dealing with severe medical problems, Ms. Broughman uses a wheelchair and hadn't been to church for 10 years. Wednesday, a We Care Transportation van, a Rural Metro Medical Services ambulance, paramedic Steve Morgan, nurse Patrice Neureuther and Sister Mary Johnice teamed up to give her the key role in the Nativity scene.
One reader, Verla Alexander, bought a new blue dress for Ms. Broughman.
"Anyone who has that depth of feeling for Christmas' true meaning -- that it's more than toys and Barbie dolls and computer games -- she seems to exemplify that true meaning," Mrs. Alexander explained.
Ms. Broughman's Christmas dream wasn't the only story that touched News readers.
Lawrence and Linda Guck, who try to care for their children on low-paying jobs, have received an outpouring of cards, letters and checks. The Clarkson Center helped them solve their furnace problem. One person even gave them a disabled car.
But it was an anonymous gift that overwhelmed them.
Someone walked into the Bank of Akron, paid off the Gucks' loan balance of $2,200 and added a $500 cashier's check for the family.
"When I got the letter from the bank, I sat here for three hours and bawled," Guck said Wednesday night. "I couldn't believe someone would walk in a bank and pay off a loan like that."
"It really touched us in our hearts and our souls, that so many people cared," Mrs. Guck added.
Wednesday night, the Gucks' modest East Side home was aglow with the joys of Christmas. Near a beautifully decorated tree, Melissa, 5, sat on her rocking horse and opened her new Barbie dollhouse, while Chad, 9, who had asked for a football, wound up with one autographed by the Buffalo Bills.
Chad also talked about the real meaning of Christmas.
"My parents taught me it's not about the presents," he said. "We come together to celebrate God's birthday. And it feels better to give than receive."
All across Western New York, thousands of people took time out to do something for the needy this holiday season. Here are a few examples:
When Eric Chevli of East Amherst turned 6 in November, he followed his parents' suggestion and gave all the presents from his birthday party to the News Neediest Fund. That meant that some needy child today would find a Battleship game or some other toy under the Christmas tree.
"I feel that a lot more parents, especially those who live in affluent areas, should guide their children toward a sense of giving instead of receiving," said his mother, Susan.
These children still will have plenty of toys, but they'll also have some pride about helping others. That's what happened with Eric, who proudly told his teacher and others about his giving spirit.
"He's just beaming with pride," his mother said.
Julie Schnitzer, 23, of Hamburg, a volunteer at West Seneca AmeriCorps, was sorting toys and food at a United Way warehouse when she offered to deliver food and toy baskets to some needy families.
"They're all smiles," she said of the recipient families. "They're just happy that somebody cares about them, especially at this time of the year. My family raised me that way, to give back to people who are less fortunate."
A Clarence woman reached back into her childhood for memories of what The News Neediest Fund did for her and her family when they were down on their luck.
That's why she's cooking two turkeys today, for her family of four and 12 members of Gloria Pointer's extended family. Mrs. Pointer's family, featured in one of the Neediest stories, includes five nephews and nieces whose father is dead and whose mother is in jail awaiting trial for his murder.
"There wouldn't have been a Christmas for us without The News Neediest Fund, and I just wanted to do something for someone else," the Clarence woman said.