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FREE MEALS DRAW 1,100 NEEDY

The heavy burden of a barren Christmas was lifted Sunday for a several needy families and individuals in Buffalo.

More than 750 gifts and free meals were distributed after a church service in Word of Life Church, 512 Pearl St., where nearly 1,100 people gathered.

Meanwhile, in the Connecticut Street Armory, the Hispanic Law Enforcement Association joined forces with other local organizations to provide gifts and food stuffs to about 170 invited families on the city's lower West Side.

"This is a very poor community," said Benny Crespo, vice president of the Hispanic Law Enforcement Association. "We got the names of the 10 neediest families from the principals at each of the elementary schools we visited and invited each of them to come here today."

Loretta Lamar of Busti Avenue arrived with her husband and two sons, Andrea, 9, and Jeremy, 7. The family received a frozen turkey, a bag of canned and dried goods, and a gift for each of the boys which, Lamar said, they won't be allowed to unwrap before Christmas.

"I was glad to be invited," she said. "I appreciate it. I really do."

The annual event was held this year in collaboration with the New York Army National Guard and several additional sponsors, including the Hispanic Women's League and the Buffalo Police Benevolent Association. Each of the invited youngsters also got to meet with Santa.

Capt. Carlos Benitez, officer in charge of the New York Army National Guard, 174th Regiment, Corps of Cadets, said the event has tripled in size since it was started three years ago. Then, the officers used to arrive in a small caravan and deliver packages to the homes of each family on the list.

"That took hours," Benitez said.

Crespo recalled that it was also an intimidating sight for some.

"We would show up with a couple of police cars and vans with the lights flashing and Santa Claus would pop out of one of the cars. Everyone thought it was a raid or something," he said.

At the Word of Life Church, the word for its gift-giving event, billed "Biggest Christmas Party in Town," was spread at soup kitchens, food pantries, churches and the City Mission.

So many showed up, volunteers had to close the doors after 1,100 people crammed into the church. Michelle Johns, wife of church pastor Eric Johns, estimated that more than 1,200 chicken and rice dinners were served at the church Sunday.

"We wanted to show the love of God to the community in Buffalo and we wanted help people in need this Christmas," said Mrs. Johns.

Robinette Baldwin of Barthel Street arrived with her three daughters, Derrica, 3; Asanti, 7, and DaShaun, 12.

"A lot of people came here expecting presents, but I think it was a blessing just to come here to hear the word and praise God," she said.

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