Christmas always brings out the best in everyone, especially in the communities we cover. Whether it’s a church coming together as one to help a needy family, or the Salvation Army pitching in to help an individual — the cities, towns and villages we report on never seem to amaze us with their acts of charity.

Here are a few examples of those in need receiving gifts of charity thanks to the kindness of people in our communities.

The Eckert family’s Christmas celebration this year can be summed up in a word: charity.

After a year of hard knocks, parents Shelley and Bob turned to a local church to help make ends meet for their three children.

Three weeks ago, Shelley gave birth to the family’s third child, Dalton. The baby came a month before the due date.

Husband Bob has been in a wheelchair since September. After two back surgeries in 1998, he should have been out of work. But when Shelley’s neck problems forced her to give up a nursing license, he tried to go back. Then one September day he couldn’t get out of bed and needed to be carried on a backboard out the couple’s bedroom window.

The family went from making $2,400 per month while Bob and Shelley were able to work to just $850 in disability. That amount barely covers the rent for their new apartment, after they were forced to move out of their home.

Given the money problems they’re facing, it was almost a Christmas-that-wasn’t.

“Thank God they were there,” Bob said. “There wouldn’t have been a Christmas for the boys.”

But at least Christmas isn’t a worry. The family, though not Catholic, was taken in by the St. John the Baptist Outreach Center

“We were depressed, aggravated,” Bob said. “Thank God the church was there for us, especially this kind of year.”

In addition to Christmas presents for the three children — Derek, 14, Christian, 7, and the newborn Dalton — the center has also given the family clothes, a walker to help Bob and an orthopedic mattress for the couple, to help rest their aching bones.

“They’ve been wonderful to us,” Shelley said. “We’re not of their faith, but that doesn’t matter to them. They never make you feel unwanted or belittled in any way. They don’t treat you like you’re below them because you’re struggling.”

Food baskets and Christmas gifts were sent out to needy families in Erie, Orleans and Niagara counties, Outreach Center director Jim Haid said. The Eckert’s are just one of 600 families helped this Christmas.

“That’s a number that’s rising,” Haid said. “We’re up 100 families more this year. The need in the community is rising. Economy in general isn’t as strong as it was last year.”

In addition to its own parish, St. John’s takes referrals from about 30 agencies throughout the area. The provide everything from living room furniture to tooth brushes for people in need.

The rising number of people in need wasn’t a problem this year, Haid said. The community stepped up its donations to the center.

“The community really rises to the occasions. They’re thinking of us, thinking of those they serve,” Haid said.

The Eckert’s have been helped, but their worries extend beyond today’s holiday.

“I don’t even know if we’re going to have a roof over our heads in a few weeks,” Bob said.

He was able to avoid one problem, though. He remembers Christmas celebrations from his childhood where his parents didn’t have much money. It’s a legacy he wanted desperately not to pass along.

“At least my kids can have something for Christmas this year,” he said. “I don’t want my kids to have to go through what I did.”

He thinks especially of the family’s oldest, Derek. Old enough to understand his family’s adult problems, the boy has been a blessing. He’s on Santa’s good list.

“He’s a good boy and we get nothing but compliments,” Bob said. “He understands there’s things we financially can’t do. But it bugs me and my wife that there are things we can’t do. It’s a lot for him, for a 14-year-old.”

But, at least for a day, it’s time to celebrate, Bob said.

“If it puts a smile on those boys’ faces, that’s all that matters to me.”

One special family

Joanne Guercio has helped thousands of families during the holidays over the last 21 years. But this year, one in particular stood out.

Once North Tonawanda resident Lisa Miller’s story of struggle and survival got out in the days leading up to Christmas, she was the recipient of mountains of goodwill. Once the community knew Miller was in trouble, it embraced her.

“When people are able to help someone like that, it brightens their Christmas as well,” said Guercio, director of social service ministry at the Salvation Army of the Tonawandas. “And that’s what Christmas is all about.”

Miller, 34, is terminally ill but scrapes together enough resources every month to take care of her son, Timothy, 14, and daughter, Jessica, 7. Although she said her kids aren’t the type to expect gifts, Miller wanted to make this Christmas special for them.

The community was more than happy to help; Guercio and Miller were blown away by people’s generosity.

Someone called the Salvation Army to ask what kind of dog food is preferred by Miller’s golden retriever mix, Casey. A senior citizen wrote a letter that said she couldn’t send money but was keeping Miller in her prayers.

Those who could give money gave freely.

“I’ve got some checks,” Miller said. “I was able to buy the kids stuff for Christmas.”

But there was more. Timothy and Jessica were two of nearly 470 children who received bags of donated gifts. A few of the bags still undelivered at the Salvation Army on Friday contained a Star Wars gun, actions figures and a portable CD player.

Some of the gifts the Millers received were wrapped and are staying that way until Christmas morning.

“I like to be surprised, too,” Miller said.

For the most part, the Salvation Army of the Tonawandas supports and is supported by residents of the City of Tonawanda, North Tonawanda and Grand Island. Local donations stay with local families. This year, Guercio helped coordinate a happier Christmas for about 225 local families.

“I’m tired by the time Christmas is over, but it’s a good tired because it’s a tired to help people have a good Christmas,” Guercio said. “We’re just the avenue for people to make it possible. I like what I do. I love helping people. I love seeing the smiles faces.”

Helping the underprivileged during the holidays is a large-scale operation. For instance, it took 24 volunteers to simply distribute part of the gifts Thursday. On a different day, local cub scouts helped pack gift bags while the local fire department delivered the bags.

Volunteer Bernie Regulski also helps deliver gifts, as well as transport the kettle workers who collect donations at stores. Regulski, 75, has been driving for the Salvation Army for 11 years and is considered essential to the Christmas operation.

“You should have seen some of the people who got the toys,” he said. “I’ve had people break down and cry.”

Everyone can be Santa Claus

For Tammy Johnson and her six children, every day, every week, every year is challenge.

This past year was no different.

“It has been really tough, because I’m on public assistance and I can’t work, because my 5-year-old (son) is a special needs child and requires constant attention,” Johnson says with not a hint of unhappiness.

She’s learned, over the years, how to stretch a dollar to met the needs of her five boys aged 4 to 15 years old and her 8-year-old daughter.

“You just barely have enough (from public assistance) to cover the bills, much less anything else,” Johnson said. “We try to pick up stuff (for Christmas) during the year to help out now.”

Still, without a little help, Christmas 2005 was looking kind of bleak. That’s when the Salvation Army and a group of just over a dozen Niagara Wheatfield High School students stepped in.

This past Monday, much to Tammy’s shock, and her children’s delight, some of Santa’s helpers paid a pre-Christmas visit to her Niagara Falls home.

“It was arranged through the Salvation Army, but I had no idea there would be so many people coming through the door,” Johnson said. “They (the students) had decided to adopt us.”

Saving their hard earned cash, the students had bought and wrapped gifts and even showed up with all the fixings for a fine Christmas dinner, turkey, ofcourse. The family was deeply touched by the warmth and love they received from the students.

“They sang Christmas carols, they played with the kids and took pictures and videos,” Johnson said. “It was just lovely, just to see that teenagers were willing to go and do something like that. That’s the meaning of Christmas, that’s the true Santa.”

Scenes like the one at Johnson’s home have played out for 265 families in the Falls this holiday season, thanks to the work of the Salvation Army. Captain William Garrett says 900 children, who wouldn’t have had presents otherwise, woke up this morning with gifts under their Christmas trees.

Like the families they help, the Salvation Army has faced challenges this year as well. The charitable needs brought on by the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, and other storms, has stretched the resources of human service agencies and those who support them.

“It’s not that people don’t want to help,” Garrett said, “but there are a lot more needs this year. Our kettle contributions are down a bit and our canned goods drive is over and our pantry is pretty empty.”

However, Garrett says nothing will keep the Army from fulfilling its holiday mission.

“We pull it off, no matter what,” he said. “We have people depending on us. One what or another we’re going to find a way to make it happen.”

Which is what brought teens from a suburban high school into the city to spread some Christmas cheer to a family they didn’t even know.

“It was like having a bigger extended family,” Johnson said. “Without the students, this Christmas would have been extremely difficult. Now it’s going to be a great time for the kids.”

They may not have traveled from the North Pole, but in Johnson’s eyes, the teens proved that there’s some Santa Claus in all of us.

“Santa is in everybody out there,” she says emphatically. “In each and every person, as they are willing to give of themselves.”

Reporters Eric DuVall, Eric O’Connor and Rick Pfeiffer contributed to this story.