December 26, 2008 in City

Christmas Bureau volunteers reflect on service

By The Spokesman-Review
Photos by JESSE TINSLEY photo

Volunteer Judy Doyle finishes verifying a client’s needs before sending her off to shop at the Christmas Bureau on Saturday.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Pathways to poverty

Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities Spokane, and Marilee Roloff, president and CEO of Volunteers of America, have worked in social services for a combined 35 years, and they oversaw this year’s Christmas Bureau, where volunteers received a crash course in poverty issues. Roloff and McCann offered the following descriptions of the categories of poor people seen at the Christmas Bureau, demographics that reflect the larger picture of poverty in the Inland Northwest.

Intergenerational poor. Poverty has dogged some families for generations. “They are used to being poor. They don’t see themselves as getting out of it,” Roloff said. McCann added: “They have a lack of hope and understanding about their own self-worth.”

Single mothers without education. “These are the most vulnerable, because of the children,” McCann said.

The chronically mentally ill. “These are usually single adults living in difficult circumstances,” Roloff said. “These are the House of Charity and Hope House (shelters) crowd.”

The working poor. “They are working, usually at minimum wage,” Roloff said. McCann added: “They’ve done everything right. They’ve cleaned up their lives. But then something tackles them, like rising gas prices, and they are right back in poverty.”

Situational poverty. “These are middle or lower-middle class folks who have been laid off and need help like this for the first time,” Roloff said. “It’s hard for them to ask for help. It’s embarrassing.”

Immigrants/refugees. New to the United States, they are among the hardest-working people in our community, said Roloff and McCann. McCann pointed out that this group is actually the most “recession-proof” because “they are used to saving, not spending. They don’t have credit cards.”

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 or (509) 459-5496.

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