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Couple opens hearts, minds in E. Side mission

Editor's note: The Christmas season traditionally is a time for giving to others and reflecting on life's blessings. From today until Christmas, The Buffalo News will present stories of local people who have been touched by that spirit.

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The focus of Michael S. Taheri's life for many years was working as a defense attorney, keeping clients out of jail and making money.

He still does all that, but now his life is much different.

He and his wife, Josette, a nurse, spend six days a week as volunteers at St. Luke's Mission of Mercy in one of Buffalo's poorest and most crime-ravaged neighborhoods. The mission at 325 Walden Ave. provides food, shelter and educational help to troubled families and individuals.

The Taheris plan to spend much of Christmas week at the mission, leaving their comfortable Amherst home to distribute free food and toys to poor families. They will also serve meals at the mission's soup kitchen and spend time cleaning up the dining room and kitchen.

"At St. Luke's, I'm proud to say that we help people every day of the year, but we really ramp it up during the holidays," Taheri said. "We'll be giving wrapped toys to 800 to 1,000 families. About 2,000 families will each receive three bags of food from St. Luke's during Christmas week."

For Taheri and his wife, helping people in need is more than just something to do on holidays. It's their passion.

Last year, Taheri decided to scale back his law career and worry less about making money. He and his wife committed themselves to the mission, which provides food and shelter to troubled individuals and families on the city's East Side.

To make more time for mission work, Taheri cut back on the number of complex, time-consuming cases he handles and arranged to meet with clients early in the morning. He also quit a part-time job he truly enjoyed, serving as an adjunct professor at the University at Buffalo Law School. Josette Taheri had a job opportunity, but decided not to take it.

Now, the Taheris spend 25 to 35 hours a week volunteering at the mission. Taheri teaches religious education and literacy classes. He mentors and tutors teenagers from some of Buffalo's poorest neighborhoods, helps them get internships and takes them on visits to colleges and cultural institutions. He also raises donations for the mission, a not-for-profit that receives no government assistance.

His wife baby-sits children at the mission, visits sick individuals, makes sure they take their medications and takes them to medical appointments. She also assists Norm Paolini, a co-founder of the mission, in visits to people who are dying. It is not unusual for Josette Taheri to drive to the East Side as late as 11 p.m. to change an ailing person's intravenous tubing.

Founded in 1994, the mission is an oasis for struggling people in a neighborhood that could be called the region's ground zero for poverty, drug addiction and crime problems.

St. Luke's kitchen serves two meals, with 400 to 600 people eating there each day. In addition to that, the mission gives away more than 500 bag lunches each week.

The Catholic mission operates two residences for men -- many of them fighting drug and alcohol addictions -- with a total capacity of about 50 beds. The mission also owns 23 homes in the neighborhood for families who have nowhere else to go.

St. Luke's also runs a small home school for children from age 3 to eighth grade, and its missionaries teach job skills and help residents find jobs.

Thousands of people in Western New York help charities every day, but what caused the Taheris to make such a strong commitment?

"I still enjoy being a lawyer and helping clients, but a few years ago, I began to feel like something was missing from my life," said Taheri, 51. "At St. Luke's, I found it I can't sing, I'm not much of a cook, I can't build a house for Habitat for Humanity, but I can work with kids and help them to have some hope I belong here."

"I can't call what I do a sacrifice, because I love it so much," he added.

Similar sentiments came from Josette Taheri, who was interviewed while a young girl from a troubled family slept in her arms at one of the houses owned by the mission.

"I like the kids here," she said. "Our own kids are in college, and there is so much need here. Mike and I just wanted to help."

Paolini and Amy Betros, the mission's two directors, are thankful for the Taheris and others who volunteer at St. Luke's.

"The first time Mike visited here, he looked at all the poverty in this neighborhood, and I told Norm, 'He's not going to sleep for three days,' " Betros recalled. "I know he was in shock. But Mike jumped right in. He has a real connection with young people. His whole belief and whole passion is giving them opportunities they would never have otherwise."

"Josette is a quiet, loving presence here," she said. "She lets the little kids climb all over her. Then she rocks them to sleep."

The Taheris' son, Erik, 18, and daughter, Joanne, 19, also volunteer at St. Luke's. Joanne spent all last summer living in one of the houses at the mission and baby-sitting young children.

On a recent day, Michael Taheri was in a small chapel, helping Sam Tillman, 43, an ex-convict who served time for armed robbery, with his reading skills.

Tillman said he was homeless and strung out on drugs and alcohol when St. Luke's took him in 15 years ago. He said the mission turned his life around. He now lives with his wife in one of the mission's houses, and he helps to oversee security at St. Luke's.

"I never finished high school," Tillman said. "Mike has helped me out a lot. It lifts my spirits that I have someone who believes in me. He'll call me at 8 in the morning, just to ask how I'm doing and say he'll meet with me later in the day. I never had anybody in my whole life who took that kind of interest in me before."

After tutoring Tillman, Taheri met with two Buffalo high school students -- Lotasha White and Diego Reynoso, both 17 -- talking to them about internship possibilities and some upcoming college visits.

"I asked him why he came to St. Luke's, and Mr. Taheri told me he wanted to find a church that had real people," Lotasha said. "I always thought lawyers were people who lied. Mr. Taheri is the exact opposite of that."

"He's our mentor," Diego said.

Taheri began to sob at one point as he talked about the stark poverty he has witnessed at St. Luke's.

"There is one boy, 12 years old, he comes here every day to eat, all by himself. Nobody ever comes with him. I don't know if he has anyone else," Taheri said. "I've met kids who seem to have absolutely no hope of ever doing anything with their lives. I just try to give them a little bit of hope, a chance to see that they can accomplish something."

In the trunk of his car, Taheri always keeps a load of candy for neighborhood kids, and dog food and cat food, which is something neighborhood residents always seem to need.

"Believe me," he said with a smile, after giving away a few candy bars, "I get a lot more from being with these people than they ever get from me."

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com

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