The upbeat mood in the house on Willow Avenue in Niagara Falls hides a heavy burden.
Rhea Gordon is known for her engaging smile. Her husband, Wallace, has a tough-guy approach to a terrible predicament. Their 5-year-old twins, Venus and Vincenzo, are bursting with life and joy.
Wally Gordon has a terminal kidney disease. The family survives on a small Social Security disability check and food stamps.
During Thanksgiving and Christmas, Rhea Gordon must turn to community kitchens to help feed her children.
This holiday season, the Heart & Soul food pantry of Niagara Falls gave them a turkey basket for Thanksgiving and will see that they have a ham and all the trimmings for Christmas dinner -- and toys for the children.
"We barely make it through the month," Rhea Gordon said. "By the time Christmas comes around, we don't have any money left for presents."
The Gordon twins are not alone. More than 30 percent of children in Niagara Falls -- nearly twice the national average -- are being reared by families living below the poverty level, said Sister Mary McCarrick of Heart & Soul.
During the holiday season, the not-for-profit agency, in conjunction with the United Way of Niagara, provides at least 250 households in Niagara County with Christmas ham dinners, plus toys for families with children, from The News Neediest Fund, said Sister Barbara Pfohl, Heart & Soul director.
In the toy department last year, 2,000 children throughout the county received toys, stocking stuffers, coloring books and crayons from The News Neediest Fund, said Carol Houwaart-Diez, United Way president.
"I've never had to ask anybody for anything," said Wally Gordon, a former construction worker, whose 220-pound stature belies his illness. "This is hard for me, but my kids comes first. They're the reason I get up every morning."
Gordon has polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary illness that affects 600,000 Americans -- one in 500 people, said David Switzer, a director at the PKD Foundation in Kansas City, Mo.
Gordon is one of 5,300 people in the state waiting for a kidney transplant.
"It's hard to find living donors," Switzer said. "It has to be a very close match."
Gordon, meanwhile, must hook himself to a dialysis machine next to his bed for eight hours every night and once during the day. The machine filters toxins from the blood -- a function normally performed by healthy kidneys. Medicare and Medicaid pick up the cost of the dialysis treatment.
"I went through my entire family for a match," Gordon said. "Now it becomes a waiting game."
And a potentially deadly game. Gordon's condition brought on a heart attack last month. He has to take 32 different kinds of pills every day. Still, he stays upbeat.
"There are a lot of people out there who are worse off than me," he said. "This is the hand we've been dealt and we deal with it."
Gordon was diagnosed with the disease in October 2003, but says it wasn't the worst hand he's been dealt. Jennifer, his daughter from a previous marriage, was killed in Florida when she was 20.
"When you go through something like that, this doesn't seem so bad," he said.
The News Neediest Fund
Cash donations to help purchase holiday ham dinners.
New, unwrapped toys for children ages newborns to teens.
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 gifts at any Wegmans store 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, City of Tonawanda; 5599 Camp Road, Town of Hamburg; 5091 Broadway, Depew; 8353 Niagara Falls Blvd. at Military Road, 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.