Three-year-old Sophia Brown charmed the crowd at the benefit on her behalf on Saturday at the Wheatfield American Legion hall.
Until she had to leave because it was her bedtime, the tiny daughter of Wheatfield's Alan Dikcis, who was killed in Afghanistan in March, was kept busy pulling raffle tickets and posing for photos.
Her mother, Nikki Brown, choked up at the microphone while thanking the crowd that came in a steady stream for the spaghetti dinner and basket raffle benefit.
Sophia, however, didn't falter. The crowd burst into delighted applause as she took the microphone like a pro, said her "Thank you, everyone," then added a firm "God Bless America!"
State Sen. George Maziarz came to present a citation from the governor. Danny Maerten, one of the many volunteers who served that day, presented a $500 U.S. Savings Bond on behalf of the Niagara-Wheatfield Kiwanis.
Among the special guests were 10 members of the 7th Engineers out of Fort Drum (where Alan Dikcis was stationed) who came to represent the members of Dikcis' unit still in Afghanistan. They made the long trip back and forth to their base in one day.
"We had to," said Command Sgt. Maj. Frederico Boyce, himself recently returned from Afghanistan and Iraq. "There was no doubt in our minds we were going to make this trip."
Boyce arranged a phone connection at the benefit between Alan's father, Bob Dikcis, and the soldier who was seriously injured during the same bomb blast in which Alan was killed. The soldier still is hospitalized with serious injuries.
The soldiers also presented Alan's family a commemorative shirt from the unit, a medal of excellence and a donation for Sophia.
Some of the soldiers were in dress uniforms; others like Spec. Danny Adams of Denver wore fatigues. The outgoing Adams was kept busy for hours by a number of children clamoring for piggyback rides.
His comrades said they expected the "designated jungle gym" to be dumped in the back of the van to sleep for the ride back.
Donations to the benefit for Sophia still can be made at any M&T Bank branch. (photos by Susan Mikula Campbell and Walt Bissett)