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Poor families find holiday cheer at Response to Love Center dinner

For Keisha Chaney, an unemployed bakery worker raising three youngsters on Buffalo’s East Side, every day is a struggle.

But the load she carries got a little lighter for a few hours on Christmas Day, thanks to volunteers and community donors at the Response to Love Center on Kosciuszko Street.

A team of volunteers, many of them from the suburbs, served her family a hot dinner featuring tasty Southern fried chicken, and gave toys, candy and other gifts to Chaney’s 8-year-old daughter, Speshalle, and her two sons, Antoine, 9, and Marcelle, 16.

“I suffer from depression, but this is nice. A nice day,” said Chaney, 37, smiling as she watched her sons chowing down on the Christmas meals. “We come by here once a month to the food pantry, and the people here do a lot for us. I appreciate it.”

The Chaneys were one of about 100 families who spent part of their Christmas at the friendly not-for-profit center that provides help to Buffalo’s poor.

“We do this every year, and it’s a special day not only for the families we serve, but for the people who come to volunteer,” said Sister Mary Johnice Rzadkiewicz, director of the center since its formation in 1985. “For Christmas dinner, we invite the people who come here on a regular basis, but also anyone who does not have a home, or does not have access to a home-cooked meal on Christmas Day.”

In addition to the hot meal, men who came to the center received a new sweatshirt and sweatpants, women received a package of personal care items and kids received toys and treats.

“The gratitude, the thanks and the smiles we get make it all very worthwhile,” Rzadkiewicz said.

She said she was especially proud of the approximately 100 volunteers who came to cook and serve meals, clean up and also to spend time people less fortunate than themselves. “Volunteers are encouraged not only to feed our visitors, but to sit down with them, talk with them and hear their stories,” Rzadkiewicz said.

Katie O’Donnell, 53, a massage therapist from Lancaster, came to serve food with her daughter, Meghan, son, Tommy, and three family friends. So did Jason Czora, a lieutenant in the Buffalo Fire Department, who showed up with his wife, Michelle, their son, Cameron, and daughter, Emily.

“I worked and made a great living in this neighborhood for 20 years, and I want to give something back,” Czora said. “I’ve always been impressed by all the things that Sister Johnice and her people do here. It’s such a great service to the community. We want to help our kids grow up to be better adults, and there’s no better way to do that than spending time here, helping people get back on their feet.”

One of the big attractions at the Christmas dinner was a life-size cardboard placard of the popular Pope Francis, which Rzadkiewicz bought after hearing the pope speak to Congress earlier this year. One person after another walked up to have their picture taken next to the realistic-looking image of the pontiff.

The Response to Love Center is one of the organizations to benefit from the $180,000 that readers of The Buffalo News donated to this year’s News Neediest Fund, an annual holiday effort.

“The Neediest Fund helped provide the food for a ham dinner earlier this month, and gave us toys for 467 kids, and we thank them,” Rzadkiewicz said.

She noted that, with so many exciting new developments and attractions emerging in Buffalo over the past two years, it is easy for people to forget that nearly one-third of city residents live in poverty.

“There are people who don’t have ice skates, and don’t have transportation to go and enjoy the downtown skating rinks,” Rzadkiewicz said. “These are the people we are trying to help.”

She said her organization and others that help the needy need donations and assistance all year long.