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News Neediest provides a help to Santa for 10,000 area children

Santa Claus came early for a family that lost everything less than three months ago in a West Side fire.

Raymond Lopez, Regina Bowden and their six children, ages 2 to 9, were greeted Wednesday morning at their back cottage on Niagara Street with bags full of toys, games and dolls, thanks to The News Neediest Fund and St. Lawrence Parish Ministries.

Pastor Angel Gauthier of Prince of Peace Christian Church and helper Kyle Irizarry presented the presents, and informed the couple they would also be going on a $350 shopping expedition at Walmart, thanks to an anonymous donor.

“I was worried that the kids were going to be disappointed because they still believe in Santa Claus. My biggest fear is that they would wake up without anything under the tree, or maybe one thing, and think they had done something wrong,” Bowden said.

“I feel very blessed and grateful, because after all they had been through – they have been sad and discouraged – I told them that if you have faith everything is going to be better,” added Carmen Cartagena, the children’s grandmother.

The Lopezes were hardly alone, thanks to a legion of secret Santas helping to bring smiles and joy to children in Western New York.

By now, nearly 10,000 area children have found out Santa did not forget them this year, even though their families have been having tough times lately.

Tens of thousands of toys and other gifts donated to the cause of making Christmas bright were distributed over the past week to families struggling to make ends meet, all provided through the Western New York Holiday Partnership, with particular help from The Buffalo News Neediest Fund and the U.S. Marines’ Toys for Tots drive.

Along with the gifts – everything from Barbies and bicycles to Play-Doh, board games and microscopes – Western New Yorkers contributed $165,936 to provide holiday meals and other assistance to the families.

There were places where Santa was showing up in the nick of time.

At St. Lawrence Parish Ministries, it looked as though there might not be enough presents for all the families signed up this year, according to Luke Dyer, practice manager at the clinic there.

“The Marines showed up Saturday with more toys, and we’re fine,” he said.

The Marines’ rescue was so successful that surplus gifts were being redirected from the parish’s East Side location on Wednesday to Prince of Peace Christian Church on the Upper West Side, for distribution to families such as the Lopezes.

Prince of Peace Church’s Gauthier said church members had been busy helping as many people as possible, including handing out gifts for 350 children last weekend.

The Food Bank of Western New York reported distributing food for about 22,000 families through 65 member agencies.

The News Neediest Fund’s financial contributions for 2014 have yet to be tabulated, but it’s hoped they will reverse a continuing decline over the past five years, said The News’ Deborah Patti, who coordinates the program.

The drive last year raised more than $172,000, and in 2012 nearly $183,000 was donated. Donations peaked in 2008, when more than $240,000 came in and the drive gave more than 15,000 children a merry Christmas.

email: mmiller@buffnews.com and msommer@buffnews.com