For Dominique Leeper and her family, life hasn't been the same since her car crash in March.
The mother of five and SUNY Fredonia graduate was working as a personal care aide at a senior living community in Cheektowaga at the time.
But the Cheektowaga woman suffered a herniated disk, a fractured toe and an injured wrist in the crash, leaving her unable to work since. Her disability payments ran out in September and she said her employer let her go when it became clear she wouldn't be able to return to her job anytime soon.
She and her children, who range in age from 18 months to 15 years old, get by primarily on child support payments and food stamps, Leeper said.
That's why she went to the Resurrection Life Food Pantry earlier this week to try to get some toys for her children for Christmas.
"I didn't want to disappoint them, so I went and applied and I'm very grateful," Leeper said.
There are thousands of families in the region like Leeper's. That's where The News Neediest Fund comes into the picture. Last year, the fund collected more than $176,000 in cash donations to give Western New York families, including nearly 10,000 children, a chance to enjoy the holidays.
The Resurrection Life Food Pantry is a distribution point for the Marines' Toys for Tots program, part of the same toy giveaway network as the News Neediest Fund.
Leeper said each of her younger children – Damani Blake, 12; Danae Blake, 10; Abriah Tucker, 3; and Amea Tucker, 18 months – will get age-appropriate toys she can pick up on Dec. 20 and wrap herself. Her oldest, Damier Williams, who is 15, likely will receive a gift card.
"It means a lot to me, that my children will be able to enjoy Christmas during this hard time for me, being out of work and being financially challenged," Leeper said.
Leeper, 32, is a Jamestown native who moved to the Buffalo area after she graduated from Fredonia with a bachelor's degree. She said she wants to work as a probation officer but in the interim had found other jobs, most recently last December as an aide at DePaul's Glenwell senior living community where she liked the family atmosphere.
Leeper said she was driving on South Elmwood Avenue near West Tupper Street on March 16 when she struck a vehicle that made a left turn in front of her. She said she has a follow-up doctor's appointment in February and she hopes to get the all-clear to return to work after that.
March was also personally a difficult month for the family because that's when Leeper's mother, Carmen Taylor, died from breast cancer.
Leeper said she hopes 2018 will be a better year. Finding a new job and some financial stability, allowing her to save toward a house, would be a start.
The family of six is squeezed into a neat but sparsely decorated three-bedroom apartment. On a recent visit, Damier was helping to cook macaroni and cheese for dinner, as Leeper held the youngest, Amea, and Abriah read a Disney book about dinosaurs.
An artificial Christmas tree stood in one corner. "I didn't want to not be in the mood," said Leeper.
Damier, who is in the 10th grade at East High School, said his iPhone 6 screen is badly damaged and he would wish for a new smartphone for Christmas.
He said he's thankful for the Toys for Tots donations because he's seen the toll the past nine months have taken on his mother.
"It means a lot, because we've been struggling," Damier said. "It's a lot of us in a three-bedroom apartment. My mom stresses sometimes – her hair falls out."
Asked whether she would urge others to support the fund, Leeper got emotional.
"There's a lot of families in need. Not only mine," she said. "You're going to make me cry."
The Buffalo News Neediest fund is in its 36th campaign. Toys are distributed to needy families through the WNY Holiday Partnership, which is administered by 211 WNY-Olmsted Center for Sight. Monetary donations go to the Food Bank of Western New York to provide extra holiday food at certain Erie County food pantries.
The partnership is a collaboration of The News Neediest Fund, the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County and Greater Niagara, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo and the Northtowns, 211 WNY-Olmsted Center for Sight, FATHERS, Hamburg Youth Bureau, Ladies of Charity, Lancaster Youth Bureau, New Creation Fellowship, Niagara County Partnership, Response to Love Center, the Salvation Army, Toys for Tots and the Service Collaborative of WNY Inc.
You may make a donation online at https://buffalonews.com/news-neediest/ by sending a check to The News Neediest c/o The Buffalo News, PO Box 2667, Buffalo, NY, 14240.
For information about how to apply to receive the holiday gifts, and application locations, dates and times, call 2-1-1 or 888-696-9211.