NIAGARA FALLS -- Life went blank for Craig Bleau and his fiancee, Patty Abel, when burglars broke into their home last week "and cleaned us out."
The burglary was the last straw in a yearlong series of setbacks during which Bleau lost his job over a child-care issue, lost the two run-down houses that he had hoped to rehabilitate and reluctantly went on welfare because he couldn't find a job.
"It was a really hard year. We've literally lost everything, including furniture. The burglars broke in and took everything out the back window while we were away," Bleau said.
That included the stocking-stuffers and Christmas gifts the couple had managed to get together for their three children.
Today, however, the family's spirits have been brightened by the generosity of the Western New York Holiday Partnership, a collaborative effort among The Buffalo News Neediest Fund and other agencies that distribute holiday dinners and toys.
"I called numerous agencies, and none of them was able to help, because they already had committed all of their resources, and it was too late for us to sign up," Bleau said.
"I happened to be walking past the Niagara Falls Boys & Girls Club on 17th Street, and I decided to go in and see if they could help us in any way," he said. "It was worth a try, anyway."
There, he met Diane Quarantello, the director, who said the organization didn't have anything just then but was coordinating a toy giveaway for the Heart, Love and Soul soup kitchen and food pantry on Ontario Avenue.
"She referred me to Heart and Soul and told me to come back the next day and pick up some toys," he said.
"I met Sister Barbara [Pfohl] from Heart and Soul, and she was willing to go the extra mile so we could have a real Christmas."
Between the staffs at the Boys & Girls Club and at Heart, Love and Soul, Bleau was able to pick up toys for each of the three children, Dylan, 6; Courtney, 4; and Hailey, 2. And donations of food and other gifts began arriving Tuesday afternoon at the home they are renting on Pierce Avenue.
"We are very grateful. We have nothing but 'thank you's' for the two agencies. They have taken a lot of stress off of us. We could have slipped through the cracks, and we're grateful that somebody picked us up," Bleau said, as Abel nodded in agreement. "We're fortunate to have what we have.
"The children still believe in Santa Claus, and you have only a few magical years with them. This is our magical year.
"For people who are struggling, don't ever give up hope. When things seem the worst, that's when good things come to you."
When asked what else the family would like this holiday season, Bleau had a simple answer:
"A job would be nice."