Fifteen years after Tracey Gonzales of Lancaster survived a double organ transplant, her family still struggles to get out from under a mountain of medical bills.
Despite the obstacles, the 18-year-old Canisius College freshman is determined to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a pediatrician.
"She wants to give back some of what she's been given," said Tracey Gonzales' mom, Pamela Gonzales-Harzynski.
Tracey Gonzales was 3 years old when she became the world's first survivor of a liver and small intestine transplant. The girl's health insurance company refused to cover the cost of the surgery, leaving her family with staggering medical bills and little money to provide extras for Tracey and her brothers, then 11 and 9.
Pamela Gonzales-Harzynski recently recalled what it meant to the family when The Buffalo News Neediest Fund came to their assistance.
"It helped tremendously," she said. "The food, the clothes, it made Christmas. It made it a dream come true."
Once again, The Buffalo News Neediest Fund and the Western New York Holiday Partnership have teamed up to respond to the needs of Western New Yorkers during the holidays.
For the 24th year, Western New Yorkers are being asked to donate new, unwrapped toys for young children and gifts for older children.
Local agencies report that they urgently need toys and gifts for boys ages 7 to 12. So far this season, most of the donated gifts are for girls.
Organizers say The News Neediest Fund is even more important this year because of the difficult local economy and because some 520 victims of the Gulf Coast hurricanes have relocated here and are in need of help this holiday season.
"People should feel very lucky when they're chosen, because there are very generous people out there," said Gonzales-Harzynski.
Her boys are grown now and living in other states. But Gonzales-Harzynski, her husband, Matthew, and Tracey continue to scrimp as the medical bills mount.
Last year, after a seemingly smooth recovery from past illnesses, Tracey was diagnosed with Evans Syndrome, an auto-immune blood disorder.
"Until then, she was doing fine . . . and out of the blue this happened," said Gonzales-Harzynski.
Despite the excruciating pain, weight loss and her hair falling out from the effects of chemotherapy, Tracey Gonzales is undaunted in her quest to pursue her degree in biology and eventually go to medical school.
"I just try not to think about it," she said of her illness.
Though a scholarship covers most of the cost of her Canisius College education, and she participates in a work-study program to help pay bills, Tracey Gonzales said a $400 outstanding bill from this semester could affect whether she will return for the spring semester that starts in January.
She can't rely on her mom or stepfather. They have bills that were accrued when Matt Harzynski was briefly hospitalized and then laid off from his job as a truck driver two years ago. Harzynski recently got a new job as a dump truck operator.
"I'm probably going to get laid off soon because it's seasonal," he said. "I only started a couple months ago."
Once again, the family is anticipating a lean Christmas.
"I try to provide, but we've got to try and catch up on credit. I don't want to file bankruptcy, you know. That's the last thing I'd want to do," said Harzynski.
This family is just one of many faced with job loss, or who only earn the minimum wage and are struggling through a medical problem or some other crisis.
Through the generosity of Western New Yorkers, the Neediest Fund hopes to make their holidays a little brighter.