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The 17th annual News Neediest Fund, the largest holiday charity program in Western New York, got under way Tuesday with the traditional tree-lighting ceremony in the lobby of The Buffalo News at Washington and Scott streets.

"We are now beginning our 17th annual drive and, as always, the need is greater than ever before," said Warren Colville, Buffalo News executive vice president. "But the Neediest Drive always seems to be able to grow to meet those needs. Last year, the drive made the holiday season seem somewhat brighter for thousands of Western New York families. Many of them had holiday dinners. Their children had their own wrapped presents under their tree, just like most families, and along with those gifts came hope and the knowledge that a community cares."

Also on hand to kick off the drive were Erie County Executive Gorski, Reps. Jack Quinn, R-Hamburg, and John J. LaFalce, D-Town of Tonawanda, other elected officials and representatives of area charities.

Colville thanked the many organizations that work with the Neediest Fund each year to make it a success, including representatives from area businesses like Wegmans and Tops, National Fuel Gas and Fisher-Price, Marine Midland Bank and the Buffalo Public Schools, and many others.

Prior to the ceremony, students from the Academy for the Visual and Performing Arts performed under the direction of Frank Scinta, and children from the School 17 kindergarten class, assisted by their teacher, Terry Vitrano, placed the first gifts under the tree.

During the 1997 drive, the fund served 11,483 area families and individuals by distributing more than $737,724 in food, gifts and other essentials.

The United Way is responsible for administration of the fund, and distribution is handled by the Food Bank of Western New York and the Food for All Pantry Network.

Robert Bennett, president of the United Way, which Colville praised for doing "a magnificent job administering this enormous effort," said the News Neediest Fund is "the grand-daddy of all collaborative charitable efforts" in the area.

He praised the Food Bank of Western New York and the Food for All Pantry Network and their volunteers who oversee the distribution of food to the needy this holiday season.

To meet the same level of service to the needy as in the past, the drive will use some 500 volunteers to process over 11,000 applications for assistance; several hundred barrels will be taken to distribution sites in Erie, Niagara and Chautauqua counties, and thousands of other volunteers will be used during the next few weeks to pick up, store and repackage food, toys and other essentials for distribution to the poor over the holiday.

"Once again," he said, "we're asking for toys and gifts for children between the ages of 9 and 12, the area of greatest need."

He said, "We have only a few weeks to accomplish our goals. It's a short but intense campaign, but we know that the reward we'll receive for our efforts will be the smiles on the faces of thousands of children and the thanks of thousands of families in need."

Families needing assistance should call the Central Referral Service at 851-5555, Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., for an application.

Deadline for applications is Dec. 2; to ensure delivery by Christmas, donations should be made by Dec. 14.

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