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HELP WANTED TO PICK UP COUNTY'S SLACK

She was waiting, like she does every day at noon. The man with the delivery knocked on the side door of the modest bungalow and she called out, "Come in." Thin and smiling, Lottie sat at the table in the tidy kitchen. She wore a gray cotton housedress and peered through thick glasses. She is 85, her parts are worn and the street where she lives is frayed. But age hasn't touched her spirit.

"Did something happen to the usual man?" she asked, as Ben Gair places two trays of food -- lunch and dinner -- on the table.

"No, I'm just filling in," replied Gair. "He had to cover a different route today."

It is a blue-sky day on a street near the Broadway Market, but all is not well. The problem isn't that Lottie, who asked that her last name not be used, got lunch from Meals on Wheels. The problem is that Ben Gair brought it.

Gair isn't a volunteer or a part-timer. He's the executive director. He ought to be in his office, figuring out how to fill $79,000 in county budget cuts, not delivering lunches. But once a week these days, Gair is out there -- because there's nobody else.

The cuts forced Gair to let go part-timers who bring meals to Lottie and dozens like her. So he, or someone from his office, gets in the car and gets it done.

Dozens of other help agencies are being stretched the same way. They are held together with glue and shoestrings. Their people don't get paid much and the agencies don't make money. County budget cuts carved a hole in their hides.

The holes won't be filled with dollars, not this year and maybe not again. But they can be partly patched with people.

We have never seen anything like this county budget crisis. In answer, we will get something that we've never seen before: A Volunteer Fair.

It's a call to arms, a cry for help, the mini-Woodstock of volunteerism. It's from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at WNED-TV's downtown studio, near the Adam's Mark Hotel. Behind each of 43 tables will be folks who -- in 43 different ways -- give a helping hand, and now need a hand.

We'll see how good the City of Good Neighbors can be.

"We're doing it on faith," said coordinator Carol Bronnenkant, who runs tours of grand East Side churches. "We're trying to reach people."

If you are a high school kid looking for community service, if you are retired and have free hours, if you are anybody with a heart that cares and time on your hands, it calls your name. If you can answer a phone, type a letter, lead a tour, tap a keyboard, stuff an envelope, deliver a meal, wash a dish or tutor a schoolkid, the door is open.

The excess cost of Medicaid, crushing taxes and political blunders forced a rebirth of county government. The labor pains are excruciating. Folks lost jobs, medical clinics closed, city kids lost connections to their inner dancer and artist. Gone are tutors, meal-deliverers, cooks, clerks and cleanup crews.

The county lost all of its fat and plenty of muscle. Thrown out with the pudgy baby was plenty of bathwater. Now we'll try to refill the tub.

"We can't just cry about what got taken away," said Gair. "We've got to think about solutions."

Meals on Wheels is just one of many who need a hand. From Crisis Services to Olmsted Parks, from the City Mission to Literacy Volunteers, from Make-A-Wish Foundation to the Girl Scout Council -- folks can pick and choose among a smorgasbord of 43 offerings.

There are lots of Lotties out there -- good folks who need a hand. The call has gone out. I hope it's heard.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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