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It's early in the holiday season. Thanksgiving's still more than a week away. The term "lake effect" hasn't dominated our thoughts yet.

But it's not too early to start thinking about the annual News Neediest Fund.

The fund set up by The Buffalo News in the early 1980s is celebrating its 23rd year with the same goal as always -- providing help for the area's needy families and putting smiles on their children's faces during the holiday season.

Families hoping to get toys for their children from the fund have until Dec. 3 to submit their applications, through the Western New York Holiday Partnership.

Interested parties must apply in person, meet the eligibility requirements and have proper documentation. Call Central Referral Service, 851-5555, to find out where to apply.

The application process kicked off recently with an ad in The Buffalo News.

"For the first few days, this seems much busier than it's ever been before," said Douglas Frank, executive director of Central Referral Service. "We're getting a ton of people who need both food and toys, and it's hard to keep up with the volume."

The criteria are rigid, to make sure the program helps only the really needy and to prevent any possible duplication.

The eligibility requirements are similar to those for food stamps. The person who fills out the application must have the proper identification, proof of residence, proof of total income in the past 30 days, identification for children receiving toys and Social Security numbers for the whole family.

Frank's staff has noticed that many of the people calling haven't used the system before.

"We're getting a lot of people who are at the end of their rope," he said. "They say, 'I haven't asked for help before, but I have no place to go.' "

The toys will be collected and distributed through the Western New York Holiday Partnership, a collaboration of more than a dozen large toy-giveaway programs in Erie and Niagara counties. The partnership helps streamline the process and prevent duplication of services.

Last year, the News Neediest Fund collected $112,000, purchased 11,500 ham dinners through the Food Bank of Western New York and distributed toys and gifts, through the holiday partnership group, to more than 12,000 local families.

Fund officials have noticed a gradual decrease in cash donations the last few years.

"Although we're just beginning to assess this year's needs, I'm hopeful that the community will be generous in its monetary donations, so the News Neediest Fund can purchase the food these families need," said Michele Magaris, project manager for the fund through the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County.


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