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Serena Vives didn't bake Christmas cookies this year.

It's not that she didn't want to. Her husband and four children love her cookies, cakes and brownies.

But she has not baked cookies or anything else since early October because she can't bake on the two-burner hot plate that serves as the family's stove.

Before Serena's 27-year-old husband, DeParis, was laid off from his highway construction job, Serena baked and roasted all kinds of things for her family.

That was in the good old days when the family was renting a small house filled with their own appliances and furniture. Now they live in a sparsely furnished apartment.

Most of their furniture and appliances are gone, sold to raise money to pay bills, including auto insurance so Vives can hunt for another job.

Some of the furniture they are using now is borrowed. Their refrigerator and kitchen table are rented. The washing machine their hot plate sits on is their own.

Vives' $251-a-week unemployment check, augmented with food stamps, has to buy the groceries, pay the rent, utilities and telephone and cover the incidental expenses of a family of six. Besides Mom and Dad, the family consists of Edward, 10, DeParis, 6, Cheyenne, 4, and Emilio, 1.

They have received assistance with food from the Valley Community Association, which also helped Vives prepare a resume.

The Vives family, which is typical of the working poor, is among more than 11,500 who have turned to the News Neediest Fund for help this Christmas.

Vives, a member of Loborers Local 210, said he had expected to work at least three months when he started a new construction job in September. He had been prepaying some of the family's bills in anticipation of the end of the construction season. But when the layoff came two months earlier than expected, the family was caught financially unprepared.

Vives said they were doing so well during the summer when he was working
full time that Serena was able to get the dental braces she had wanted for so long. But when the paychecks stopped, so did the visits to the orthodontist. Now the braces are coming apart and they can't afford another office visit to have them removed.

"I thought I had my foot in the door when I got into the union. The money was beautiful but every time I got laid off, we had to move to a cheaper apartment," he said.

A high school dropout, Vives later completed courses in interior design and plumbing through the Job Corps. He currently is working on his general-education diploma through the Adult Learning Center.

He also has been beating the bushes looking for a job, using self-taught computer skills to search the Internet for employment opportunities.

Vives said his dream job would be designing Internet Web sites and pages but his immediate priority is "anything that is long-term, permanent, year-round."

"My resumes are everywhere. If they call me from Japan, I'm gone," he said.

Serena Vives, who has a general education diploma and brief exposure to college, is scheduled to begin studying information technology in January at Bryant & Stratton Business Institute.

The Vives expect to have one Christmas gift for each child. Sometime early next year, when Vives gets his tax refund, there will be more, including clothing for the children.

Serena Vives said Edward and DeParis, like millions of other kids this year, have asked for Pokemon stuff for Christmas. Cheyenne wants Barbie things. Emilio will be "happy with anything."

TeParis and Serena painted and wallpapered their apartment when they moved in with materials provided by the landlord.

"We don't have much, but we want it to look nice," said Vives.

People can leave nonperishable food and new unwrapped toys at any of several drop-off sites, including The News.

Cash donations to the News Neediest Fund -- which is administered by the United Way -- can be mailed to Station C Post Office, 1245 Main St., P.O. Box 444, Buffalo, N.Y. 14209-0444. Money is used to buy perishables and holiday ham dinners through the Food Bank of Western New York.

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