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A joyous Christmas for father of three Watching his children open the gifts of kindness eases much of the pain that life has dealt him

It was the purest of Christmas scenes, a moment of absolute joy for a father who has been through so much.

Stanley Purdie, 51, sat down in the living room of his modest West Seneca cottage and watched his three children -- Nyree, 12; Tyree, 10; and Kyree, 8 -- ripping through the Christmas wrapping on one toy for each.

Nearby, about three dozen Christmas gifts sat under the tree, a visual reminder that this would be the kind of holiday that Purdie never thought he again would be able to provide.

Nyree, after opening up a bath set, beamed with delight as she looked at all the presents.

"I wanted at least one toy for each of us and Christmas dinner," the 12-year-old said. "We got a whole bunch of toys. I'm surprised. I'm speechless."

Just then, Ardie Reinard, special events manager for West Seneca AmeriCorps, told Purdie there were some presents under the tree for him, too.

"I got my presents right there," he said, looking at his three children.

"This means everything to me," Purdie added. "This has made my Christmas and my kids' Christmas something special. I try to do the right thing. This means a lot to me. It really does."

Then Purdie walked back toward his bedroom to collect his emotions.

The scene could serve as a thank-you snapshot to anyone who donated toys to The News Neediest Fund as part of the Western New York Holiday Partnership. West Seneca Youth Bureau/AmeriCorps staff had unloaded the presents a few days before Christmas.

Watching the genuine smiles on the three Purdie children's faces was a reminder of how even a modest gift to The News Neediest Fund can light up a holiday for a family that has had tough times.

> Scene repeated

That scene was repeated when thousands of local kids awoke this morning to a merrier holiday because of the donors to The News Neediest Fund and the Western New York Holiday Partnership.

The partnership, set up to streamline the efficiency and avoid duplication for The News Neediest Fund and about a dozen other local toy-giveaway programs, provided toys for almost 17,000 local children last year. This year's drive, after a somewhat sluggish start, is expected to reach that figure.

"It is my gut feeling that the lack of snow and its wintry magic hindered toy donations in the beginning," said Michele A. Magaris, United Way project manager for The News Neediest Fund. "But despite the lack of snow, the true spirit of the holiday is alive and well in Western New York."

Cash donations, which late last week were lagging just a few hundreds dollars behind last year's total at the same date, also are expected to reach the 2005 total of about $148,000. That will be enough to provide 12,000 Christmas ham dinners for a family of four.

An upside-down early winter season, with the big October storm yielding to mild December weather, may have left donations lagging earlier this month, when winter weather usually puts potential donors into the giving mood. While local providers scrambled to reach last year's totals this year, several other trends emerged during this holiday giving season:

Donors seemed to be more creative, and, with some prodding, they didn't forget the older kids.

In addition to the more traditional toys and dolls, donors gave plenty of educational toys. And one person donating to the Western New York Holiday Partnership/News Neediest bin at Wegmans put together a "Sabres package," complete with a hockey stick, tape, a street hockey ball and a Sabres jersey.

"I believe The News' stories about the need for toys for older kids have made a positive impact on the type of toys and games being donated this year," said Jennifer Kurzdorfer, consumers affairs representative for Wegmans.

Family dynamics keep changing.

"The thing that surprised us this year was all the grandmothers who signed up for toys, because they're raising the children," said Reinard of West Seneca AmeriCorps. "It's sad, very sad. You hit your golden ages, and now you're the mom again."

The need seems to be ever-increasing, and not all of that can be traced to tougher economic times.

Some of it is due to the more consolidated and better publicized toy-collection efforts through the partnership.

"The need has grown, as people become more aware of the services that are available to them," said Joanne Guercio, director of social services at the Salvation Army of the Tonawandas. "For many people, it's very hard to say, 'I need help.' But I think all of the programs working together have taken away some of the stigma of asking for help."

That was true for Purdie, who called the West Seneca Youth Bureau because Nyree needed a uniform for her holiday concert, where she played the cello.

> Disability check

A single father, Purdie is a former banker who played basketball at Rochester Institute of Technology. But diabetes and kidney failure forced him out of work, and he now provides for his three children with a monthly Social Security disability check.

Things are so tough for Purdie that he waits weeks to do his family's laundry, to save on the cab fare.

"If it was just me, it would be no problem; you can go to bed hungry," he said. "But my kids, you can't look them in the face and say there's no money."

Purdie took another glance at his kids playing with their new toys, as Tyree shook some of the unopened presents to guess their contents.

"I can't say how thankful I am," Purdie told Mark P. Lazzara, executive director of West Seneca Youth Bureau/AmeriCorps. "If I ever get back on my feet, I would help another family in some way."

"That's all we want," Lazzara replied, "to pass it on."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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