It's a heartwarming scene to come into The Buffalo News lobby, see all the Barbie dolls, miniature trucks and toy animals under the tree -- and then imagine how they will light up the faces of children across Western New York on Christmas morning.
But that warm feeling hides the fact that thousands of local families won't have enough for a special Christmas Day meal.
Or, the fact that older children, who have grown out of the "adorable" stage, don't have enough people donating gifts for them.
Or, the fact that The News Neediest Fund, in its 23rd year, has seen a dramatic drop in cash donations in the past few years.
"This is a year when the community again faces challenges, with many families struggling to make ends meet, even though they are gainfully employed," said Arlene F. Kaukus, president of the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County. "This is a year when we again need people who can, to help those who cannot."
The challenge is daunting.
Douglas Frank, executive director of Central Referral Service, the local clearinghouse for people seeking holiday food and toys, says that the demand has been so large this year that he's had to switch some of his staff members to answering the phones.
"It's certainly been the busiest season we've ever had," he said. "Usually, it's busy for a day or two, and then it dies down. This year, it's been busy the whole time, from the moment this thing was announced.
"We've seen a lot of people who've never had to ask for anything before," Frank said. "A lot of them are underemployed." (Families can apply through Central Referral Service, until Dec. 3, by calling 851-5555.)
News Neediest officials are trying to turn around the recent drop in cash donations, which pay for the holiday meals.
Through 2001, that figure stayed above $140,000, before dropping down to $111,000 last year, which resulted in the fund not being able to provide as many holiday meals as before.
"Our goal would be to serve over 13,000 families, which would require about $150,000 in cash donations," said Joe Foy, promotion and public affairs manager for The News.
The News Neediest Fund, which takes out no administrative costs from the money donated, has become more aggressive in seeking cash, sending out close to 1,500 letters this year to previous donors.
So far, that's been successful.
"We've already received in excess of $12,000 in cash donations," Foy said. "That's a terrific start, but we have a long way to go."
Foy also made an appeal for the oft-forgotten children aged 8 to about 15. When people go buy Christmas toys for the needy, they tend to think of younger children. So there's often a huge demand for CDs, video games and board games for the older ones.
The News Neediest Fund, along with more than a dozen other local toy-giveaway programs, has its toys collected and distributed through the Western New York Holiday Partnership. The partnership helps guard against families double- or triple-dipping from various agencies.
"We make sure they're not receiving toys from three or four or five agencies," Foy said. "So we're able to serve more people."
The News Neediest stories -- focusing on families in need, families that have benefited in the past from the fund and groups that donate or distribute food -- will run three times a week in The News, on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays this holiday season.
Readers will learn about:
A Niagara Falls husband with a disability who collects cans and bottles to help his family pay its bills, all while they're grieving the loss of a premature twin born last spring.
A single mother of three from Buffalo's West Side, a domestic violence survivor who found a job, before two diseases left her too ill to work.
A Lancaster teen who received a liver and small-intestine transplant, whose family was helped by the Neediest Fund six years ago.
And a Niagara Falls family battling a terminal kidney disease, unable to stretch a small Social Security disability check into extra money for Christmas.
The faces and addresses of the News Neediest recipients have changed, too. Years ago, it was mostly city families on public assistance.
But that group has been joined by more and more residents outside the city, and more working families. So many of the needy, like the four families mentioned above, have suffered because of circumstances beyond their control, such as a stroke, long-term illness or a destructive house fire.
The fund helps many who aren't in abject poverty, but who just don't have anything extra to pay for a joyous holiday.
"I think a lot more families are just barely making it, making decisions between the utilities, which we all know are going up, and rent and putting food on the table," Kaukus said. "So they basically make the choice that there's no more left for the essence of the holidays, giving your children something special, to show you love them."
THE NEWS NEEDIEST FUND
Cash donations to help purchase holiday ham dinners.
New, unwrapped toys for children ages newborn to teen.
These items are especially needed for 8- to 12-year-olds: arts and crafts materials, athletic and sporting equipment, board games, music CDs and CD players, cosmetics and personal care items, jewelry and hair accessories, gift certificates, hand-held electronics, movie passes, photo albums, posters, videos and video games. Also, clothing such as sweat shirts and hoodies.
Drop-off sites for gifts include all Wegmans stores in Erie and Niagara counties, The Buffalo News lobby at Washington and Scott streets, and Buffalo News satellite offices at 1000 Young St. Suite 320, Tonawanda; 5599 Camp Road, Hamburg; 5091 Broadway, Depew; 8353 Niagara Falls Blvd. at Military, Niagara Falls, and 100 Dingens St. and 1125 Niagara St. in Buffalo.
Cash donations may be mailed to: The News Neediest Fund, Station C Post Office, 1245 Main St., P.O. Box 444, Buffalo, NY 14209-0444.