A glistening white Christmas tree, with wrapped presents peeking out from beneath decorated branches, brought sparkle and holiday cheer to Bernice Montanez and her family.
But the Season of Giving really arrived early this month for them, thanks to the News Neediest Fund.
The family recently moved into their Massachusetts Avenue apartment on the West Side, which was virtually empty of furniture and food when The News reported on their situation Dec. 5.
Now, it’s furnished, and the kitchen cupboards and refrigerator are stocked, thanks to readers’ generosity.
“I feel a lot better. I’m very blessed to have people – total strangers – in my life that care about me, that want to help me. They put love in my heart,” Montanez said.
“I would like to thank everyone. Hopefully, by this time next year, I will be in a position to pay it forward.”
The Montanez family was one of 6,450 families helped this year in Erie and Niagara counties by the News Neediest Fund, in which The Buffalo News teams up with the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County and Greater Niagara, the Olmsted Center for Sight/211 CRS and others.
That total includes toys and other items for 11,907 children, according to the preliminary count. More than 2,000 individuals and corporations have given $182,847 in cash contributions, with that amount also expected to rise.
Angel Gordon, the subject of one of the News Neediest stories, was offered help of a different kind. Leslie Ayer, program coordinator for the Buffalo and Erie County Workforce Development Health Professions Collaborative, read that Gordon hoped to be a nurse someday. He called her to say she was eligible for a grant that would help her train as a certified nurse assistant while receiving transportation and day care assistance.
“[Gordon] said this was ‘the best Christmas present I have received in a long time,’” Ayer said.
Nor was it only adults who gave. Those who helped came in all sizes, including children.
Madison Scott, 11, helped get donations of 1,000 toys and 300 pounds of food, while 5-year-old Olivia Roneker’s efforts helped collect enough food to fill two SUVs.
A young boy who wanted to help after reading a News Neediest story had his father drive him to The News to donate $35.
No story this season got a bigger response than that of Montanez, a 35-year-old single mother who, after being struck by a car five years ago, was in a coma for six months and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
The accident caused her to lose partial use of her right arm, and she eventually had to learn to walk again, wobbly, on her toes.
Montanez, who does piecework at Goodwill, and her two sons – her two daughters live with their father – were forced to live with relatives for several months before moving into an affordable-rate apartment last month rehabilitated by PUSH Buffalo.
But there was no furniture, except for a love seat; no food, except peanut butter and jelly; and nowhere to sleep. Hours after the story appeared, the first of numerous donations – from furniture to gift cards to cash – began pouring in.
The Basil family, which owns automobile dealerships, had delivered a new queen-sized bed for Montanez and smaller beds for the boys.
A couple, who wish to be anonymous, provided a coffee table, end tables, pullout couch, two chairs – including a recliner – glass cabinet and dining table with chairs that belonged to a recently deceased family member.
Jason Hunter, 38, and sister Carly Hunter, 31, of Eden, were so moved they called The News with a truck full of groceries, looking for a delivery address.
“They can have steak and shrimp tonight,” Jason Hunter said.
But that wasn’t all.
They bought each of the boys laptops, a phone for Montanez with a year’s service and five sets of winter hats and gloves, which the article noted she and her teenage sons needed. They also gave Montanez $500 to buy Christmas gifts for her daughters, which the article said she had been unable to do the past two years.
They also bought the family a flat-screen TV.
The humble brother and sister, who work as a corrections officer and marketing director, respectively, said they spent about $2,000.
“She looked so stressed in that picture, and we felt for her so much. We wish we could do more,” Jason Hunter said. “We grew up with a family of seven kids and not having much, and we’ve been blessed. We just want to share our blessings.”
The brother and sister arrived at Montanez’s door with a bouquet of flowers.
“It was one of the most fulfilling moments of my life,” Jason Hunter said later. “It was a true, pure experience.”
Goodwill and PUSH, Montanez’s News Neediest Fund sponsor, also received offers of help. Maria Zwack, Montanez’s case manager at Goodwill, said one woman brought in a roll of quarters.
”She’ll need them for cleaning clothes at the laundromat,” Zwack quoted the woman as saying.
Zwack said she’s thrilled to see good things happening to Montanez.
“Bernice would give her last dime to anybody. She would give it away before she found comfort for herself,” Zwack said. “She has also pushed through a lot of pain and discomfort to get to where she is now.”
Alvin Gibbs, the maintenance supervisor for Montanez’s apartment building, said it’s been wonderful to see the changes because of the News Neediest Fund.
“Since the story, she doesn’t do nothing but cry and talk about how much she appreciates everything. She had nothing, she was sleeping on the floor with her kids. Now she has beds, she has all the necessities of life, and she’s definitely grateful,” Gibbs said.
Montanez said she now is getting a good night’s sleep for the first time in months. And Zaindre, her 15-year-old son who had earlier told her, “Mom, my pride is almost gone,” has a greatly improved outlook.
“Oh God, he’s excited. He doesn’t seem like that now. He’s really back to his old self, except he’s happier,” she said.
So was Montanez on a recent day, as she looked out on the Christmas tree that a daughter and niece decorated. Nearby in a vase were the flowers Jason and Carly Hunter gave her.
“I’m going to [dry them] and put them in my Bible,” she said.