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The News Neediest Fund started in 1982 with a simple desire to help area families who could not afford holiday gifts for their children.

The need is even greater now.

The 31st annual campaign kicked off Thursday with the lighting of the Christmas tree in The Buffalo News lobby and young children placing gifts under it.

“It was the beginning of an idea that has blossomed into something,” News President Warren Colville said. “In today’s world, it’s really important. This is the beginning of something really great.”

Colville highlighted the importance of the tradition, which kicked off Nov. 21, 1982.

“Back then, it was an idea where we’d collected items, and the Salvation Army would pick them up,” he said.

The “City of Good Neighbors” has lived up to its reputation in the years since, and hopes are that thousands of residents again this holiday season will make generous donations of unwrapped toys, cash and holiday meals.

The News Neediest Fund – which is administered by the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County – faces increased demand amid high unemployment and a struggling economy.

“This year, more than ever, we need all the help we can get. It’s really challenging for families right now,” Colville said.

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.

United Way President Michael Weiner flipped the switch to light The News tree Thursday.

“Now more than ever, programs like this really make a difference in the lives of those in need,” he said. “Look around at the economy, and there are families without enough food or toys for their children.”

“We really want to impact the quality of life for families. There’s no better way to do it than through The News Neediest Fund,” Weiner said.

Thursday’s kickoff had an extra festive touch, with holiday songs by a 13-member chorus from Houghton Academy and area children bringing the first gifts – favorites like Baby Alive, Mr. Potato Head and construction toys – to put under the tree in The News lobby. Two ballerinas from Neglia Ballet also made an appearance.

Of particular need this year 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 for that age group. All cash donations go toward purchasing holiday meals and gifts.

Unwrapped toys will be accepted in The News lobby at Washington and Scott streets from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; and from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. A detailed breakdown of other dropoff locations throughout Erie and Niagara counties is at buffalonews.com/newsneediest.

The dropoff sites include Wegmans stores (toys only) in both counties, Shea’s Performing Arts Center’s box office, the Hamburg Fairgrounds annual Holiday Lights Festival and a number of HUNT Real Estate locations in both counties, as well as Dipson Theatres.

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.

To ensure delivery by Christmas, donations are encouraged to be made by Dec. 10, but will be accepted up until Christmas.

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.

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The News Neediest Fund

How to apply for gifts:

Applications will be accepted until Dec. 8.

For applications, sites, hours of operation and eligibility requirements, call 211 WNY-Olmsted Center for Sight, by dialing 211 or (888) 696-9211, seven days a week between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

What’s needed:

• Cash donations to purchase 12,000 holiday dinners and other perishable items

• New, unwrapped toys for very young children

• New, unwrapped items for 8- to 12-year-olds, such as books, electronic games, board games, crafts, gift cards, cosmetics, athletic equipment

Where to give:

Drop-off sites for gifts include:

In Erie County:

• The Buffalo News lobby at Washington and Scott streets

• All Wegmans stores in Erie and Niagara counties (toys only)

• Hunt Real Estate Corp. WNY offices

• Dipson Theatres in Buffalo and Erie County

• Shea’s Performing Arts Center box office

• Toys for Tots donation barrels scattered throughout region

• Hamburg Fairgrounds Festival of Lights

In Niagara County:

• Tops in Lewiston

• Edward Jones in Lewiston

• Wegmans on Military Road, Niagara Falls

• Nike in the Fashion Outlet Mall, Niagara Falls

• Cornerstone Credit Union, two locations in Lockport,

one in Middleport and one in North Tonawanda

• Tin Pan Alley, Lewiston

• General Motors Components Handling, Lockport

For a complete list of locations and times, go to buffalonews.com/newsneediest

• Cash donations may be mailed to: The News Neediest Fund, P.O. Box 2667, Buffalo, NY 14240-9873 or donate at buffalonews.com/newsneediest

Who are the participating organizations:

The Western New York Holiday Partnership is a collaboration between The Buffalo News Neediest Fund, the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County and Greater Niagara, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Northtowns, 211 WNY-Olmsted Center for Sight, F.A.T.H.E.R.S., Hamburg Youth Bureau, Ladies of Charity, Lancaster Youth Bureau, New Creation Fellowship, Niagara County Partnership, Response to Love Center, the Salvation Army, the USMC Toys for Tots, the Service Collaborative of WNY, Community Action Organization of Erie County, Expressway Assembly of God, Fellowship Hill Ministries, Olivencia Community Center, Resurrection Lutheran Church Food Pantry, True Bethel Charities and PUSH.

email: krobinson@buffnews.com