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Four years ago, I received a special gift from a young woman working as a clerk in the market where I shop. I only knew her from patronizing the store, but I had observed that she was always pleasant and friendly to everyone -- so friendly that I felt comfortable mentioning to her that I was soon going to have surgery for throat cancer.

She must have gotten my full name and address from my daughter, who also shops at the store. Just before Christmas, when I was recuperating, a letter came in the mail. I couldn't believe my eyes when I read it, and I cried all that day, thinking a young girl would take the time to write such a beautiful letter to a near-stranger.

I'm in good health now and cancer-free. I have learned to talk again. But this letter is still encouraging to me. I read it whenever I get a low feeling, and it perks me up. Thank God for people like Cindy and all the others who take the time to make a difference. The letter read:

Joyce, How happy you made me the other day -- it was so wonderful to see you. God love you! You look great! That's wonderful! You have climbed that high mountain, and you're on your way back! -- I knew you could do it.

It's been a year since my mom has started her fight against cancer. If nothing else, she has made my dad and me realize how precious life is and how much we used to take for granted.

We now "take time to smell the roses," one day at a time and cherish every moment together. That's what it's all about.

Other than my job, which, let's face it, must come first at least eight hours a day, family and friends are the next on the list.

With the Christmas season quickly arriving, so many are caught up in the rush, last-minute unimportant details to attend to -- so busy trying to get things done, they forget what Christmas is all about.

To me, people like you are what it's all about. Happy endings! Good, warm, caring people -- knowing that they still do exist in this crazy, mixed-up world. So thank you for making my holiday brighter this year by your good news and speedy recovery. The road ahead may get a little rough, but God never gives us more than we can handle. My thoughts will be with you and your family this Christmas holiday -- I'm sure you will have a special one. Love, Cindy

Joyce Battaglia

"The Spirit of Christmas" is an expression frequently used in the holiday season. Why is it that we welcome and cherish this giving and charitable spirit only for such a short and specific time?

I know a group of people who go beyond their family and friends to demonstrate generosity and good will to others year-round. They present themselves during all seasons. They are Compeer Volunteers, and they are the Spirit of Christmas personified.

Compeer is a non-profit organization that provides friendship to children and adults who suffer from emotional difficulties or mental illness. The volunteer makes a commitment to spend time with a person in need, to accept and include a new friend in his or her life. It is a most beautiful gesture of reaching out into the community and touching another soul.

These people are masterful at taking the wealth that exists within and transforming it into tangible gifts for others. They are gentle, kind and humble. They give their time and energy with purity of heart. They are a source of inspiration and connectedness for all of us. They reveal the divine nature of humanity.

Karen Healy

There is a tremendous 100-year-old maple tree in my front yard that sheds a lot of leaves come autumn. But I love that old tree. I am a senior-citizen widow on a fixed income. This year my daughter moved, so I could no longer depend on her assistance, and the prospect of clearing all those leaves by myself was out of the question. I decided that when all the leaves were on the ground, I would call someone to help me.

Because I had worked part time until recently, I had never been able to get to know most of my neighbors -- unfortunately for me, I now see.

One Sunday in November, I came home from church to find the young man across the street, Mike, along with my kitty-corner neighbor, Jim, and his darling young son, Ian, vigorously raking my leaves. My next-door neighbor, Greg, soon appeared with rake in hand and joined them in manicuring my yard. I was very surprised and grateful for this unexpected kindness.

Helen H. Hendrix

Anyone who thinks the spirit of Christmas is dead hasn't met Mrs. S. I'm not giving her full name; but I can say that despite their similar kindheartedness, any association with a famous Mr. S., known for his generosity and spirit during this season, is merely coincidental.

With a vanful of children, I found myself stuck on the way from West Falls to Buffalo with a broken transmission. I flagged down the first person who drove by. Without hesitation, she offered to go get her mother, who lived down the road and had a van (as well as a heart of gold).

Mrs. S. arrived moments later. We made a few calls on her cellular phone to a mechanic's shop she knew and to another that would tow the car. Then, since there wasn't room in the tow truck for me, five children and the driver, she offered to take the children, 6 to 10 years old, back to her house, where she gave them snacks and organized some games. Off I went to the repair shop, where the workers told me Mrs. S. was just living up to her reputation as a kind-hearted woman.

The car had to stay at the shop, so Mrs. S. picked me up, with the children in the back seat, and we drove back to Buffalo. As she pulled into our driveway, I offered her money for gas, tolls, calls on her cell phone, the children's snacks and perhaps rug-cleaning made necessary by several spills. She would not accept it.

She told me she was glad to have been able to help. Ordinarily, she would have been in the city, volunteering at a Christian ministry on the lower East Side where she tutors children after school, but those children had taken a field trip that day. I will never forget her kindness and I will look for opportunities to pass it on.

Judith A. Frizlen

Platelets, a component of blood, are essential to life. During chemotherapy and radiation, cancer patients' platelet levels drop to zero, and they must receive donations. In large part, the quantity of available platelets is dependent upon a relatively small band of caring, loving and selfless Western New Yorkers.

To donate one unit of platelets, the donor must sit in a chair, needle in arm, for approximately two hours. Many in this group of "gift-of-life" givers have been willingly, caringly and lovingly going through this two-hour procedure bi-weekly for years and are already scheduled for appointments through the end of 1998.

These givers receive no material rewards. They donate freely and without regard to who the recipients will be. It's a gift of love from one human being to another.

Although each of these donors is deserving of recognition, one in particular must be named. Sonja Reitberger has been donating platelets since February 1975. Who knows the countless numbers of lives that she has helped to save?

Tom Snedden
East Amherst

My daughter, Leanne, has proved over and over that she is a giver. She took care of her stepfather, who was bedridden, until he died in 1980. In 1981, her sister was diagnosed with cancer that eventually spread to her bones. In 1987, her brother also was diagnosed with cancer. Leanne cared for both until they died.

In 1992, I was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus, and Leanne was told I had only two weeks to live. She cared for me 24 hours a day, feeding me through a tube in my stomach every hour. I'm still alive five-and-a-half years later, with no evidence of cancer! Last year, when I suffered a serious heart attack, she was there with me, encouraging me and caring for me.

When her mother-in-law fractured her shoulder and knee, Leanne took her into her home, cared for her and rehabilitated her.

She herself has been struggling with cancer for 14 years and is now undergoing chemotherapy. Yet she still finds time for her family and two volunteer organizations. Nursing to her is more than just her profession -- it's her life.

Esther Baumis

I met Karen 21 months ago at Bridgewell, an adult home for mentally and physically disadvantaged people, where she has been doing volunteer work for two-and-a-half years. She is a college graduate, intelligent and beautiful. She works full time from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Every Monday after work, Karen goes directly to Bridgewell without having her dinner.

At 5 p.m. she gives out the mail. Then she helps serve the coffee. At 6, she goes down to the activity room and calls bingo until 7:30. Then she sits down with individuals and helps them with their problems. She helps people write letters, makes key chains and puts fingernail polish on women. Sometimes she brings candy. Karen is a joy to be with. All of the residents love her and look forward to seeing her.

Vincent J. Anzalone
Town of Tonawanda

I sat on the couch of a bookstore, sifting through some self-help books. I had come to a crossroads in my life imbued with confusion and hopelessness. My whole world had turned upside down, and I wondered if I would ever bounce back from this horrible period of depression.

I noticed a woman sitting on the chair next to me. We started talking, and I felt comfortable enough to confide in her about my life struggles. Her brown eyes were full of compassion. She asked: "Do you believe in guardian angels?" My mind raced back to a vivid image of a beautiful guardian angel doll. I had asked my mom then, "Do you believe in guardian angels?" and she had answered yes. I wasn't convinced then, but now I began to feel different.

This woman said she helped out in a religious community and asked me to write down my name and what I wanted the nuns to pray for. She also promised to pray for me and requested I return the favor. When she left, I felt contentment and inner peace. Within moments, everything became crystal clear. God hadn't abandoned me. I truly believe I was touched by an angel.

Deborah Nadolski

My dear friend Jacqie Harris died on Sept. 3. This letter is about Len Kowalski of Orchard Park, who gave so much in her last year of life.

They were acquaintances through a Bible study group. When Len heard in 1996 that Jacqie's second bout with breast cancer had reached a critical stage, he took her to lunch and offered his help. Jacqie told him she had just begun weekly treatments in an experimental drug program in Hackensack, N.J. It was her last hope for survival. When he heard about the grueling 15-hour journey she had to endure weekly, he volunteered to go with her.

Each week -- for more than 30 weeks -- he accompanied her, adding in mini-sightseeing trips before returning home in the evening. Eventually she was told the treatments weren't working and nothing more could be done. Just a few weeks later, she passed away.

This was a selfless act by a man who barely knew her in the beginning. Len Kowalski brought her joy and comfort in her last year of life and touched the hearts of all those around her. He is a hero in my eyes.

Nora H. Winkle
East Amherst

Pat Irwin takes it upon himself to mow the islands on Harding Road in South Buffalo as well as rake the leaves and shovel the snow. He has also bought and planted trees for the islands, as well as the front lawns of many residences on Harding Road, all at his own expense. Several years ago, Harding Road was renamed Pat Irwin Drive for a day in his honor for all he had done for the street and the people who live on it.

Tom Fox

For 72-year-old Mike Papero, community service is a lifelong practice. As president and one of the founders of Friends of the Woods, Mike has been quietly serving the citizens of Cheektowaga for more than nine years.

The work these volunteers do is not for the faint of heart or body. Although many members are over 65, they plant trees, clean highways and parks and lay cobblestone sidewalks. If you see a beautiful young tree growing on Como Park Boulevard, it was probably planted by Friends of the Woods. If you enjoy Stiglmeier Park and the pristine beauty of the Reinstein Nature Preserve, you can be sure Friends of the Woods is involved.

Mike's interest in community and environmental affairs stems back to 1942, when he helped the late Dr. Victor Reinstein turn the family's donated tract of land into today's nature preserve.

Dorothy L. Delmonte

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