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Petite and soft-spoken with a hint of an Alabama accent, Sonia Whitlock tries to smile and look for positives. But she can’t stop the tears as she talks about a life-changing car crash and what that means to the future for her and her family.

“It’s hard. I just take it one day at a time,” Whitlock said.

At age 39, the Niagara Falls mother of three had already been dealt some tough breaks in life, losing both her parents within five months of each other in 2011. She grew up in Alabama, but had been living in Buffalo since 1998. She went to Georgia for a time to be near family and returned this past year.

She recently settled in with her family in a nice, three-bedroom apartment in Niagara Falls and found work as an assistant manager at a 7-Eleven.

But within months of her return, she was dealt another blow: On the evening of Sept. 28, she was seriously injured, nearly losing her left arm, after being trapped in a rollover crash. Her two youngest children, daughters Skylar, 4, and Summer, 3, were in the SUV, a Ford Expedition, but were not injured. Her 16-year-old son, Wardell – “Wardy” – was not with them.

She said the man whose car they struck was able to get the two girls out without injury, but she was trapped with her arm crushed under the truck, bones protruding. The truck was lifted to free her, and then she was airlifted to Erie County Medical Center.

Whitlock has been unable to use her left arm since the crash and has no feeling in her fingers. She said it remains unclear whether doctors will be able to save her arm. She was hospitalized for three weeks and has had seven surgeries since September. More surgeries and intensive therapy are expected to take more than a year.

Left alone to care for herself and her children, she admits she is struggling. She has her necessities covered, such as food, rent, utilities and medical care, but as she waits to be approved for disability, she has no cash coming in.

Wardy is a big help and a great big brother, walking his sisters to Head Start classes, running errands, making dinners and helping around the house, but Whitlock said she can’t even afford to buy him a winter coat and sadly there is nothing extra for Christmas – not even a tree.

“He would really like a bike and a trailer to pull the girls to school; he said they walk pretty slow,” Whitlock said.

But she’s getting some help.

This past week, a nurse referred Whitlock to the Heart, Love and Soul Food Pantry, where Sister Beth Brosmer, executive director, met with her.

“We can get that for you,” she told Whitlock in a calm and reassuring voice. “We can get that for you.”

Brosmer’s organization is a United Way of Greater Niagara agency and benefits from donations to The News Neediest Fund, which accepts toys and cash donations to purchase holiday meals and gifts for families, including Whitlock’s. Brosmer said they will distribute toys to more than 300 children at Niagara Falls Boys and Girls Club through the help of The News Neediest Fund and other members of the Western New York Holiday Partnership. Now in its 32nd year, the News Neediest drive benefited nearly 11,000 families in Western New York last year.

“We certainly can help them, and we are going to get them a tree,” Brosmer said.

She also offered to provide a box of food for the Christmas meal and clothing gifts for the children.

She said her food pantry provides holiday meals in a box to 325 households, serves breakfast and lunch every day, 50 for breakfast and 60 for lunch, and supplements 700 individuals on a monthly basis at the food pantry and dining room at 939 Ontario St. in Niagara Falls.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do, waking up Christmas morning having nothing,” Whitlock said. “The warmth of Christmas is very special to me.”

She agreed to be interviewed by The Buffalo News to help put a face on the struggling families who are helped by the Fund.

She said her wish is to have use of her arm, be able to do things with her kids, have a normal life, go back to work and “just be able to buy soap and toilet paper.”

“It’s crazy how your life can change in the blink of an eye,” Whitlock said.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com