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'A BIG, BIG, BIG HAPPY'

Six-year-old DeParis Vives Jr. was a happy little dude Friday night.

Clad in a new flannel shirt and blue jeans, he wore his Buzz Lightyear wings on his back while playing with a power racer and holding his prized Pokemon notebook. Then he pressed a button on his Buzz Lightyear contraption. "Buzz Lightyear to the rescue," his battery-powered toy replied.

DeParis squealed in delight.

"How happy are you?" asked his father, DeParis.

"A big, big, big happy," the little boy replied.

Chalk up another joyful Christmas for a local family, courtesy of The News Neediest Fund and its donors.

For one bright and shining moment Friday night, the Vives family -- one of the featured News Neediest families -- had no problems, financial or otherwise.

"It's overwhelming," said the boy's father, 27, a laid-off construction worker and father of four. "I'm just so happy for the kids. We couldn't even wait 'til tomorrow, so we let them open up the presents this (Friday) morning."

The News Neediest Fund once again turned potential Christmas-time frowns into smiles for local families, but it took a last-minute blitz to put Christmas dinner on the table for thousands of families.

Only last week, cash donations to the fund were down significantly from previous years, leaving organizers concerned whether they would be able to fund the traditional holiday ham dinners for some 11,400 needy families across the region.

A little publicity about the drive's plight seemed to spur donors, said Michele Magaris of the United Way, who serves as project manager for The News Neediest Fund.

Fund officials have seen dramatic increases in donations, after potential donors called to say they never realized the fund needed cash to buy the dinners.

The cost of the ham dinners added up to about $150,000. As of Dec. 12, the cash donations totaled only about $33,600, representing a $116,400 shortfall.

"Money is coming in fairly quickly now, and we are over $100,000," Magaris said earlier this week. "We still have a ways to go, but things are really moving finally. So we are hopeful that we will be able to meet all of our obligations, or we all will be washing dishes for quite a while."

For the fund's many volunteers, the smiles on the kids' faces make it all worthwhile.

Bill Enright, a volunteer from the Communications Workers of America Local 1122, has seen firsthand the difference that News Neediest Fund contributions have made for the many parents who picked up donated gifts at the Connecticut Street toy depot.

"People have donated some really nice toys here," Enright said. "Some of the parents have said we make all the difference Christmas morning. Without (the toy donations), many would not be able to give their children gifts."

He and Billy Dang, another volunteer from CWA Local 1122, are longtime News Neediest volunteers who help unload the bags of toys shipped from the United Way warehouse on South Park Avenue.

"I do it because I enjoy it and my employer, Bell Atlantic, allows me the time off to do it," Enright said.

"Some (of the recipients) come here with some real sob stories," Dang added. "It makes you feel pretty good to be able to help them."

The families featured in recent stories appearing in The News represent hundreds of local families with similar needs.

Besides the families who apply for assistance to The News Neediest Fund, there are several special-needs families that are helped.

"Most families apply directly to the fund," Magaris said. "That demands some capability on their part, but there are many circumstances where the family is no longer intact, and maybe children have been removed from the family. So we have a category outside that process called the Special Needs Group. Those add up very quickly."

Craig Thrall, who is on The News Neediest Fund staff, helped deliver food and gifts to some families featured in The News stories.

Wednesday, he helped deliver furniture to the apartment of Lisandro and Maricely Sanchez. The couple, who have a limited command of English, had recently arrived from Puerto Rico with their 2-year-old son, Lisandro Jr. The only furniture they owned was a dining room chair. Thrall said a Amherst family donated a love seat and dinette set they had planned to sell.

Both families benefited from the gift.

The people donating it were happy that it was going to someone who needed it, Thrall said.

And the Sanchez family?

"They were extremely happy," Thrall said. "Even though there was a language barrier, the smiles on their faces transcended that. It was real nice."

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