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Fire added to family's tribulations A home of their own is tops on Christmas list

Weary of their recent nomadic lifestyle, a permanent home is at the top of the Christmas wish list for Robin Shields' children.

The Lackawanna family became homeless after an October fire claimed their apartment and most of their belongings. Since then, they have moved around Western New York, staying at hotels in Hamburg and the Town of Tonawanda and with friends in Lackawanna and Buffalo.

"I want a house for Christmas; I want to be able to run around and be free," said 13-year-old Donna Shields. "I want to have my own room."

"It's hard to get a place because we have no money," added her mother. "A lot of landlords don't want to work with social services."

Dorothy DeMaria, area coordinator of the Lackawanna Food Pantry, has assisted the family in many ways -- from food to the apartment search.

"I spent the whole afternoon trying to find housing," DeMaria said. "I sometimes wish I were Cinderella's fairy godmother and wave my wand to make things change."

The Lackawanna Food Pantry is one of many local food distribution sites participating in this year's Buffalo News Neediest Fund.

Again this year, the Neediest Fund and the Western New York Holiday Partnership have teamed up to provide food and toys to more than 12,000 families around Western New York. Even this close to Christmas, there is a need for toys for children over the age of 8, as well as cash contributions to help supply the ingredients for holiday dinners.

Shields said that DeMaria and the food pantry have a been a major support system for her family.

"Since the day I moved to Lackawanna, she's helped us in every way and with a lot of emotional support," she said.

Robin Shields, a 42-year-old mother of four and Buffalo native, recently separated from her husband and moved with their children to a Lackawanna apartment in September. Shields, who had been a stay-at-home mom in her marriage, was looking to rejoin the work force, but then the daytime fire ruined her plans.

It started in Donna's bedroom and quickly engulfed their apartment.

"It was bad, really bad; you couldn't see anything," Shields said. "It was just like walking into midnight."

The family was not hurt, but all their clothes and precious keepsakes were destroyed in the fire.

And their apartment was later condemned by city officials, Shields said.

With no job and no money, Shields turned to the Red Cross for assistance. The agency was able to put the family up in two different hotels for two weeks. And then Shields and her children moved in with a friend. All five of them squeezed into a room.

"It gets kind of boring to just sit there looking at each other," she said. "We've been reading a lot of books."

The search for an apartment has been a struggle.

The family has 20 days to find a place. They are currently staying at a Buffalo friend's house who will be hospitalized for that period of time.

Shields' older sons, Joseph, 19, and Russell, 17, have been looking unsuccessfully for jobs to help the family.

"We are looking for work, but we don't have a phone, so nobody can call us back," Shields said.

Christmas this year for Shields is difficult with the ongoing search for a new home.

Her two youngest children, Donna and 11-year-old Eric, said finding a home is what they really want for the holiday.

But aside from a house, Eric would also like a Smack Down vs. Raw 2007 game to play on a Play Station 2 his friend owns.

Donna, who is mentally delayed, contracted a viral infection last year, which made her lose her hair.

Her hair hasn't grown back. She said her wigs are old, and she would like new ones for the holiday.

e-mail: esapong@buffnews.com

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>The News Neediest Fund

How to apply for gifts:

Applications will be accepted through Dec. 8. For application sites, hours of operation and eligibility requirements, call Central Referral Services at 851-5555, Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

What's needed:

Cash donations to purchase 12,000 holiday dinners and other perishable items. New, unwrapped items for 8- to 12-year-olds, such as books, electronic games, board games, crafts, gift cards, cosmetics, athletic equipment.

Where to give:

Drop-off sites for gifts include:

* The Buffalo News lobby at Washington and Scott streets

* The News' Niagara County Bureau at 8353 Niagara Falls Blvd., Niagara Falls (Military Road side of Pine Plaza)

* All Wegmans stores in Erie and Niagara counties

* Toys for Tots donation barrels scattered throughout the region

* For large group donations of gifts, call Deborah Patti at 849-5524

* Cash donations may be mailed to: The News Neediest Fund, Station C Post Office, 1245 Main St., PO Box 444, Buffalo, NY 14209-0444

Who are the participating organizations:

The Western New York Holiday Partnership is a collaboration between The Buffalo News Neediest Fund, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo, Central Referral Services, F.A.T.H.E.R.S., Hamburg Youth Bureau, Ladies of Charity, Lancaster Youth Bureau, New Creation Fellowship, Niagara County Partnership, Response to Love Center, the Salvation Army, the USMC Toys for Tots program, West Seneca AmeriCorps, WNY Hispanics & Friends.

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