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Christmas Bureau volunteers reflect on service

In his younger years, Larry Tobin walked through the hardware section of Sears with a thirst for every tool that he didn’t yet possess. Now he is 67, a retired airline pilot, and his toolbox lacks no tools. “I’ve got them all,” he says.

The week before Christmas, he showed up at the Christmas Bureau to visit his friend, Karl Speltz, a longtime bureau volunteer. As young men, these two friends worked hard to achieve status and financial stability. And then, mission accomplished, they turned to service to others.

They said giving to others helps them avoid the “is-that-all-there-is” syndrome. People experience it most acutely, experts say, on the day after Christmas, when the presents are all opened and the festivities are over.

Volunteering as the antidote to the post-Christmas blahs was just one of the insights about poverty and affluence revealed at this year’s Christmas Bureau, which closed Dec. 20.

Other insights included:

Poverty 101

Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities Spokane, says, “If you want to see who is poor and why, work the ID desk. This is Poverty 101.” At the ID desk, recipients show proof of address, proof of children living in the household. Volunteers also ask recipients their estimated monthly income.

Bill Korum, 75, volunteered at the ID table this year. When he asked people about their income, “some would say ‘$300’ and some would say ‘Nothing.’ I was shocked.” He came away from his bureau experience still puzzling “how a woman with five kids lives on $414 a month.”

Bonni Atkinson, 37, has some insight into that. She volunteered this year for the third time, and for 20 years, she’s also been a recipient. She says the biggest misconception about the poor is that they land in poverty because of drugs and alcohol abuse. Addiction is behind some poverty, she acknowledges, but many end up in line at the bureau for the same reasons she first did. “I was poor, because my husband left me with three little kids. I could barely survive, let alone do Christmas.”

She has let go of some of her own misconceptions about people with financial means. She once thought they “had stuff and didn’t care about us and thought that if there was a problem, we did it to ourselves.” She now feels in awe of the compassion she sees in volunteers at the bureau, though she said it amazes her to hear some planning their post-Christmas vacations to Mexico and Florida. Still, she said, “I don’t think I’ve ever felt as accepted or as needed as I do here.”

The solution

One day during a lunch break at the bureau, several volunteers discussed the interplay of rich and poor in various Christmas stories, beginning with the birth of Jesus story in the New Testament.

Jim Kuhns, a senior priest in the Spokane Diocese, pointed out that the shepherds were among the lowliest people in society. Frank Bach, another senior diocesan priest who volunteered at the bureau, said St. Nicholas, the Santa Claus precursor, gave young women dowry money so they could marry, rather than be sold into slavery. And in “A Christmas Carol,” the Charles Dickens classic, Bob Cratchit is a lowly clerk, underpaid and overworked by Ebenezer Scrooge.

The shepherds, the dowry-less women, the lowly clerk. These characters of ancient stories have their counterparts in modern life, from street people, to uneducated single moms to the minimum-wage worker trying to support a family. So back to the solution? There is no easy one, volunteers agreed, but it begins by not ignoring the poor.

“This is an inn that lets people in,” Kuhns said, looking around the Christmas Bureau. “We’re not turning them away at the door.”

Rebecca Nappi can be reached at rebeccan@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5496.

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