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In a spot along Kosciuszko Street, a teddy bear lies spread-eagle on its face, its fake fur matted and filthy from last week's rain.

Like many of the trash-strewn abandoned homes on Buffalo's East Side, it looks like it just can't go on. Sometimes, the people living there look the same.

One used to visit the nearby St. Adalbert Response to Love Center every day, looking progressively disheveled and despondent after his mother died.

Sister Mary Johnice Rzadkiewicz, the center's founder and director, gave him soap and shampoo but noticed he never got any cleaner. "In fact," she said, "he looked worse."

Rzadkiewicz paid him a home visit and saw he was living without heat, electricity or running water. The soap was useless.

After arranging for him to move to a rooming house, she describes his transition.

"He looks like the best, neat person -- well-dressed and cleaned up," she says triumphantly. "We do have success stories, real success stories."

Housed in the former St. Adalbert Elementary School, the center serves its impoverished neighbors with a soup kitchen, food pantry, two thrift stores, on-site legal aide, blood pressure testing and county-trained professionals to help clients apply for food stamps -- all under one roof.

Rzadkiewicz talks excitedly about the General Equivalency Diploma program the center will start in September. "Our aim is self-sufficiency," she said. "Before, we were just handing out food without any strings attached. Now we say, 'How about a job?' "

Rzadkiewicz directs the center with the help of three other Felician Sisters, who converted the school into what they call a haven for residents, some who live in houses that are shells, fires having destroyed their interiors and windows.

"It's a terrible neighborhood," said one resident who asked not to be identified. "I don't even want my kids out there playing. There's so much crime, drug dealers on the corners."

As deteriorating as it may look, Rzadkiewicz said she wouldn't want to live anywhere else. "I've been here since 1967, and I choose to be here because I know someone has to be here, and you can't give up on people who are in need."

Veda White was among clients lined up in the center one day last week, eager for a chance to hit the thrift store's 25-cent sale. Though she can only come when she gets a ride, she said she used to visit the center every day.

"The food is always good, and the clothes are nice and more than reasonable," White said. "Everyone is so kind and nice, and you can't ask for more than that. We shop, eat, whatever."

This summer, the center will feed more than 250 people three days a week. Sixty percent of the center's food is provided by the Food Bank of Western New York, which is holding its annual Summer Harvest drive. Donations can be mailed to Summer Harvest, Box 395, Buffalo, NY 14226, or call 852-1305.


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