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A year ago, Jamilee and Eric Rodriguez managed to experience the best of Christmases following the worst of times for the West Side Buffalo family.

Five months earlier, on July 19, 2011, days before his fourth birthday, the couple’s only son, Eric III, suffered third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body in a horrific accident at the home of a relative who was attempting to start a bonfire with gasoline. Flames from an explosion engulfed both the adult relative and little Eric.

After spending 18 days of intensive treatment at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Cincinnati, and making several subsequent trips for follow-up care, Eric III was still convalescing last Christmas. However, the joy for him, his parents and three sisters was that he was home. “We were extremely grateful that he was still alive. That made it all the more sweeter that our only son was still with us for that Christmas, and for more Christmases to come,” said Jamilee Rodriguez.

Despite their immense gratitude, last Christmas was still a sparse occasion for the Rodriguez family as young Eric’s medical bills mounted.

The Rodriguez family is one of the hundreds of families that will be helped this year by the 31st annual News Neediest Fund. During last year’s drive, the fund assisted more than 12,000 families and 14,000 children by distributing more than $700,000 in toys and food. With dad, Eric, currently unemployed and mom, Jamilee, having only recently started a new job as a licensed practical nurse at a pediatric clinic in Cheektowaga, this Christmas promises to be just as spare.

“We’re just making it paycheck to paycheck. We still have traveling expenses,” said Jamilee Rodriguez.

In fact, Eric III is scheduled to return to Cincinnati for his ninth skin graft procedure on Dec. 14.

“I have to say they are amazing, and they’ve done a lot for us,” Jamilee Rodriguez said of the Shriners’ charitable arm.

For nearly a century, the Shriners Hospitals for Children has been dedicated specifically to pediatric care at sites around the country.

“After [Eric III] was burned, we’ve had a lot of financial hardship ... I mean, traveling costs. Even though Shriners Hospital covers part of it, they don’t cover everything. So that, we’ve struggled with. We also struggle with paying our gas and electric [bills],” she added.

In addition to little Eric, the couple has three daughters: Nina, 14; Lillian, 6; and Violet, 3.

Jamilee Rodriguez said her husband, who has training in computer repair, does occasionally get requests to do repair work from home, “so he can spend more time with the [younger] children. But every dollar that we get goes either to bills or to the gas tank. So, quite frankly, we haven’t even Christmas shopped yet,” she said.

“It’s really hard, because I want to be able to give them more stuff, and it’s really hard not to be able to,” she added. If she could afford it, Jamilee said she would like to buy Eric III a new mattress that would take some of the pressure off his sensitive skin.

“He gets these sores. He also gets cysts and stuff [and] pressure sores from his mattress, because his skin is so frail where they’ve taken the skin from his donor sites [on little Eric’s back and hips],” she said.

For their eldest daughter, Eric and Jamilee Rodriguez would like to buy some new clothes and toiletries.

“Lillian really wants a Lalaloopsy doll,” said Jamilee Rodriguez.

Jamilee Rodriguez has also dreamed of buying Lillian an InnoPad, which is a child’s version of an iPad. “I’d really like to get her some learning games ... She is still struggling with some of her letters and stuff at school,” Jamilee Rodriguez said.

“Violet, she’s like a little mom. So she likes to play with baby dolls,” her mother added.

Little Eric’s sisters dote on him, nearly as much as their parents do.

“He likes to be called Buddy. He believes he is a hero (and he is to us),” said Jamilee Rodriguez.

Of particular need for this year’s News Neediest drive are gifts for children ages 8 to 12. Books, electronic and video games, board games, crafts, sports and athletic gear and equipment, gift cards, jewelry, beauty items, skateboards and scooters are suggestions.

Distribution of toys is handled through the Western New York Holiday Partnership, a collaborative effort of The Buffalo News Neediest Fund, the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, the United Way of Greater Niagara, Niagara County Partnership, the Salvation Army and many other organizations.

Cash donations can be made using PayPal on The News Neediest link on the company website or by sending a check to The News Neediest Fund c/o The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 2667, Buffalo, NY 14240-9873.

email: hmcneil@buffnews.com