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NIAGARA FALLS – Despite not having some of the things most of us take for granted – such as a car, a Christmas tree and Christmas toys for her children – Kristen Schutta spends most of her days helping others, volunteering for the Salvation Army seven days a week.

A small tree, donated by the Salvation Army, lit the living room of her Niagara Falls apartment, but her children – Olivia, 4; Joshua, 6; and Matthew, 8 – pointed out that an Elf on a Shelf was sitting conspicuously in the trees branches watching over everyone.

Schutta said that the Salvation Army is the one that has been watching over all of them since they moved to Niagara Falls from Glens Falls in April.

“Salvation Army has always been really, really good to me and my kids. It’s the church, it’s the people there, it’s all-around wonderful,” Schutta said. “If we are in need of something desperately (Niagara Falls Maj. Corinne Hayes) is right there asking, ‘What do you need? Are you OK? What can I get for you?’ We couldn’t get a Christmas tree this year, and she went out and got us one.”

Hayes called Schutta a great stabilizing force with a great attitude and “a real joy to be around.”

“We don’t tell people they have to help. She wanted to get involved,” Hayes said. “Someone does not have to be of our faith, race, creed, sexual orientation – nothing matters. We want to help whoever comes in and is in need.”

She said the organization’s major fundraiser is the kettle collection, and this year it got tougher, with more need, less time to raise money – between Black Friday and Christmas – and bad weather.

“We are in desperate need,” Hayes said. “Our Thanksgiving food baskets doubled this year. Last year at Christmas we gave out barely 250 baskets, and this year more than 300 signed up, and they are still calling. We can’t turn anyone down, and we are scrambling. Our food pantry is up about 30 percent a month for families seeking emergency assistance. At Christmas, over 700 families benefit from our food and toys.”

She said that at this late date the kettle drive in Niagara Falls has raised only half of its goal, with only days left in the drive.

“Every penny stays in Niagara Falls for programs and services,” Hayes said. “We usually raise $60,000 to $65,000. This year we are barely at $40,000. I’ve never been this far behind in the kettle drive, and I’ve been doing this 23 years. I’ve never seen it this bad. The need is going up, and the money is going down.”

The Salvation Army is assisted in providing toys to needy children as a member of The News Neediest program. Hayes said it always needs toys and each year tries to provide three toys to each child, as well as a stocking stuffer, a craft, a book, a stuffed animal and also a game for the family.

“This is technically to help people to supplement their Christmas, but the reality is that this is what their Christmas is,” Hayes said. “It’s very stressful for people, and it’s so hard when you are struggling.”

Schutta she understands what it means to struggle since she was left alone as a parent at age 19 and later was in another unsuccessful relationship. But now she is in a good relationship with her boyfriend of six years and Olivia’s father, Pedro Torres, and appears to be doing better after he got an overnight job making machine parts, which allowed them to move to a nicer apartment.

She said that right now, she is a stay-at-home mom, but if they are able to get a car, she’d like to help more people by going back to her previous job as a home health care aide.

“I don’t mind asking for help when it comes to my children,” Schutta said. “It’s all about the kids. If I am struggling and can’t provide for my children I feel awful. There’s a lot of people who come in and talk about their struggles. And I tell them I understand and completely know what you are going through. Some years are tougher than others.”

She described her children: Olivia, who is outspoken and will lay it all out; Matthew, the oldest, who is her little big man and helps her out; and Joshua with the dimples, who is the charmer.

But all three have one thing in common. They all want to help, too, when they grow up. Olivia, who is in prekindergarten, and Joshua, who is in first grade, said they want to be police officers. Matthew, a third-grader, wants to be a fireman.

Schutta said that at the Salvation Army she has been helping people fill out intake applications and making up food and present baskets. “I love helping out people as much as I can,” she said.

Hayes said the Salvation Army’s goal is to make everyone’s Christmas special.

“Bring food because even if we can’t put it in our baskets, we can use it in our food pantry, which is open seven days a week, and put a check in the Salvation Army kettle. You can do that,” Hayes said. “I am very nervous at this point at the numbers.”

email: nfischer@buffnews.com