For half a century, Spokane residents have reached out to help create a more blessed Christmas for complete strangers.
Fifty years of caring.
Fifty years of sharing “Christmas love,” as a little girl described her gift to another little girl five decades ago.
Fifty years of an entire community coming together to help create a bit of Christmas magic for those with little chance of doing it on their own.
The Spokesman-Review Christmas Fund began simply enough.
In 1945, Janet Campbell was a Red Cross recreation worker from Spokane stationed in North Wales during World War II. She alerted her hometown about Bill Schwenk, a GI who lost his sight, one arm below the elbow and use of his other hand during a mine explosion in Germany.
Campbell wrote to The Spokesman-Review, urging Spokane residents to join other cities in the United States to help this man, a stranger to them, pay the costs of what he called “a phony hand and wolf eyes (a Seeing Eye dog).”
Newspaper writer Margaret Bean took up the cause, dubbed Bill’s Bonds, and started a tradition that has become as important to many Spokane residents as filling their own children’s stockings - giving to strangers through The Spokesman-Review Christmas Fund.
The next year, 1946, the newspaper was asked to help Carol Lee Davis, an 8-year-old child who had been born a “blue baby” (with premature or malfunctioning lungs). The girl’s widowed mother, who lived on a “sub-marginal farm” near Benton City, could not afford the cost of surgery to restore her daughter’s health.
Margaret Bean turned hot-lead newspaper type into dollars once again - and urged newspaper readers to help someone they had never met and likely never would meet.
Even as the Christmas Fund will do in 1995, it did in 1946: published the names, addresses and amounts of all those who gave, and included remarks from some of the donors.
On Dec. 20 that year, Bean wrote: “This touching little note in childish handwriting came yesterday to The Spokesman-Review from Elizabeth Anne Warner, E102 Market, Kellogg, Idaho:
“‘Dear Carol Lee: I am 7 years old. I have been ill too. I am sending you one dollar that my grandmother gave me for Christmas. My Christmas love to you.”’
In 1949, a Christmas fund was organized for the 13 widows and children of locally based Air Force crewmen killed Nov. 16 in a B-29 collision over Stockton, Calif. Eighteen airmen from what now is Fairchild Air Force Base died that day.
Another similarity between today’s Christmas Fund and the early efforts is the traditional last-minute appeal to make the goal.
On Dec. 23, 1949, Margaret Bean wrote the fund was short $564 of its $10,000 goal: “The Christmas fund for widows and children of the B-29 crash victims is disappointing today. We thought some short snorter would come snorting into the office with a $1,000 bill to buy our short snorter, but nobody showed up.
“As a result, we haven’t hit the $10,000 mark. … Needed is $564.”
On Christmas Day, Bean wrote: “We are over the top. … It is simply terrific. Ten thousand dollars contributed from virtually every town in the Inland Empire … in sums ranging from 35 cents to $200.”
Dorothy Rochon Powers, a familiar name to longtime S-R readers, began writing the Christmas Fund stories in 1953 when Bean retired. Powers wrote the annual stories until her retirement in 1988.
The Christmas Fund was not very organized in the early 1950s, she recalled. Mostly, Review readers brought in used clothing, children’s shoes with “plenty of wear still in them” and hand-knit mittens and scarves for those who wouldn’t be “all toasty and snug” at Christmas.
In 1956, the newspaper enlisted the help of three non-profit agencies - The Volunteers of America, Catholic Charities and The Salvation Army. That’s also the first year money was collected instead of a mishmash of things.
“There was resistance to giving money” at first, Powers said.
But once the buying power of bulk purchasing was realized, attitudes about donating money changed, said Powers and Ken Trent, VOA director, who has been part of the Christmas Fund the past 30 years.
There wasn’t much cooperation between the three agencies in the early years, Trent said. But, it was only a couple of years before the agencies consolidated the operation, pooling the gifts of money to buy toys in bulk and distribute them and vouchers equitably.
“Economically, we (now) do a much better job for the client and the donor,” Trent said.
Trent, Powers and others involved with the Christmas Fund in 1976 defined the program’s mission:
“To make Christmas a brighter day by providing help with Christmas dinner and a new toy or game for each child 18 years and younger.”
The fund, just like society itself, has evolved greatly since the ‘50s.
Sheer numbers probably are the most dramatic change - both in the number of recipients and the number of dollars it now takes to meet the most basic of needs.
In the 1950s, single parents raising their children alone were rare. Rent didn’t gobble such a huge portion of a family’s income, and children probably weren’t as aware of their parents’ financial straits 40 years ago as they are today, thanks to television and advertisements that inundate youngsters.
Television “brings home how much they lack in life, materially,” Trent said. “It emphasizes their place in life.”
There are more people working at low-paying jobs these days, called the “working poor.” They make enough money at minimum wage to pay for only the most basic of needs, often leaving nothing for luxuries such as Christmas.
“They barely have enough money to survive on,” Trent said.
“Christmas Day is recognized in this country as a special day, and a day to celebrate life,” he said.
The Spokesman-Review Christmas Fund now enters its second half-century of helping children and their parents to celebrate life for one very special day.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by A. Heitner
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