In the cold warehouse-like buildings of the Spokane Fair and Expo Center, volunteers hustled Monday to unload 16,000 toys from semi-trailers and begin setting up the annual Christmas Bureau, which opens Wednesday.
“I’ve got sporting goods and games,” one woman shouted, as she pulled a cart loaded with boxes into the bureau’s inventory room.
“These are Tonka trucks,” another said.
Many of the volunteers were students from Rogers High School, which will send about 70 helpers to the bureau by the time it wraps up Dec. 19.
“It feels good to know we can make a difference,” said Sara O’Brien, 15, a student in the school’s leadership class.
The Christmas Bureau is a 10-day event that distributes toys, books and grocery vouchers to needy families. It’s organized by The Spokesman-Review, Catholic Charities and Volunteers of America and is funded through donations from the community.
Students from Rogers – a school with one of the state’s highest rates of students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches – said they were proud and well aware that the time they put in will directly help their classmates.
“We’re in a community that has hard times, and we’re here to show that we care,” said Troy Madera, 16. “It doesn’t matter how much money your family makes. There’ll still be something under the tree this year.”
Madera and his classmates energetically unpacked pallets of toys, sometimes jumping into the air to tear down cellophane that held the boxes together.
Meanwhile, a 79-year-old volunteer named Dave repeatedly bent down to stack the boxes on a dolly and then push the toys to their spots in the inventory room.
“When you get tired, you take a break,” said Dave, who declined to give his last name. “There are enough people helping, you can do that.”
For Jim Thiessen, Monday was his first day as a bureau volunteer.
Thiessen was laid off twice this year from sales jobs, so he asked his parish priest if he could spend some time helping.
“I’m not just doing it to fill time,” said Thiessen, who said his wife has a steady job so his financial situation is OK. “It’s for the kids.”
Thiessen has 12 grandchildren and said it’ll be emotional to see all the children in need at the bureau.
“I’m a sap,” he said. “Anytime I see a little kid who needs something, I want to do everything I can to help.”
Volunteer Bonni Atkinson, of Valleyford, knows all about kids in need.
“For years, (the Christmas Bureau) was the only way I could give my kids a Christmas,” she said.
Her children are now 20, 19 and 17. One is in the military, another is in college and the youngest is in high school.
Until she started volunteering at the bureau four years ago, they never knew that’s where she “bought” their Christmas gifts.
She said it was hard knowing other people paid for her family’s gifts, but her gratitude for donors who make the bureau possible is “overwhelming.”
“They have saved Christmas for many years, for many people,” Atkinson said.
Donors gave the fund a big boost over the weekend with new donations, putting the amount given so far at $77,099. The fund’s goal is $500,000.
Teck American Inc., of Spokane, provided $10,000 of the new money.
“We know that it is challenging for many this year, and we hope that our contribution will go in some small way to bringing some cheer to those who are in need,” wrote the company’s vice president, David W. Godlewski.
An anonymous couple sent $500 in honor of the 29 members of their immediate family, including their 18 grandchildren.
“Thank you for providing this opportunity to share in the infusing of the Christmas spirit of joy and hope into those in our community who are most in need,” they wrote.
An anonymous donor gave $300 in memory of Milton and Fay Echelbarger.
Alan and Deanna Eppinger sent $225 in memory of their parents.
“Hopefully this contribution will assist someone who might not otherwise enjoy the benefits that we all tend to take for granted,” they wrote.
The Spokane Falls Chapter No. 34 of the International Footprint Association donated $200, as did Gary and Leanne Brosius, who gave in honor of their children and their families and their loved ones who have passed away.
An anonymous donor gave $150.
Roy and Arlene Waters, of Spokane, sent $125.
An anonymous donor gave $105.
Giving $100 each were: Spokane residents Gail and Duane Harper; Roger Palmberg; Mary and Michael Cronnin; Eileen Thorpe; Soroptimist International of Spokane; Gregory Schuster; Mead residents Diane and Ty Wick; Coeur d’Alene residents Jim and Shirley Pugh; and three anonymous donors, including one who wrote, “Thank you for giving Spokane people the chance to help others in need at this special time of year.”
The Wednesday Bridge Group donated $80 and expressed thanks for the chance to help.
Giving $50 were: Spokane residents Phyllis Hanson; William and Elfrieda Mullin; Nancy Muir Hand; W.H. and V.A. Selzer; James and Carol Mitchell; Ewing and Olivia Page; James Jarrell; and Kris Spelman, who donated in memory of her grandmother Violet Burgunder and great-aunt Elsie Altin.
Liberty Lake residents Charles and Mary Ellen Steen and Gene and Jackie La Liberte each gave $50, as well.
Charlotte Greene, of Spokane Valley, sent $50 in memory of Frank Greene, a Spokesman-Review copy editor from 1974 to 1988 who “loved the Christmas Fund.”
A $50 donation “from Abby” came with a note: “We thank you for all the good you do.”
William and Louise Yocom, of Newman Lake, sent $50, as did Joan Casey, of Colbert, and three anonymous donors.
“God bless all you people working so hard to help others,” wrote one.
Gene and Shirley Schatz, of Spokane, sent $40 in memory of their daughter, Karen Schatz Dunning.
“Her generous spirit would be proud of the caring generosity of the Spokane community,” they wrote.
Spokane residents Dennis Kimball and Ed and Pauline Carlson gave $25 each, as did William and Gelene Griffiths, of Nine Mile Falls, and Cathey and Pat Priddy, of Valley.
Jong Soon Whang donated $10 in honor of families of the Lakewood police officers killed last week.
And Rose Breckenrudge, of Coeur d’Alene, gave $5.