To a family waiting outside the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center’s gates Wednesday morning, not even 7-degree weather could keep them from being first in line on what turned out to be a record-breaking opening day at the Christmas Bureau.
Beginning at 3 a.m., the group of 14 huddled under blankets and took turns sitting in warm cars. Knowing how great the need is this year, they worried about having to compete with other families for the first look at this year’s toys.
The relatives faced the elements to bring joy to the 20 children they have between them, all asleep at home with other family members. The toy that comes from the Christmas Bureau is the “Santa gift” every year, said Amanda McKenna, 25.
“They think we’re here to see Santa this morning,” said McKenna, who told her two children she needed to meet with the big guy to discuss what he should deliver on Christmas Eve.
Is that so far from the truth?
For 16,000 children in the Spokane community, the Christmas Bureau is a lot like Santa Claus. The bureau distributes grocery vouchers, toys, books and candy to families in need. It’s a partnership among The Spokesman-Review, Catholic Charities and Volunteers of America and is funded through donations from the community.
More than 5,900 people flocked to the 10-day event’s opening Wednesday – about 200 more attendees than 2008’s record-breaking first day. By 10:30 a.m., the line stretched at least 100 yards, weaving through the building and outside to the fairgrounds entrance gates.
Volunteers gave out food vouchers totaling $51,197 to 1,611 families with average monthly incomes of $1,105.
Some families said coming to the bureau was an annual tradition. Others attended for the first time. Many expressed gratitude to the bureau’s donors, whether they send in $5, $100 or thousands of dollars.
“It’s a blessing, especially with so many people out of work right now,” said Spokane resident Stephanie Tullos, 39.
Tanaya Reeves, 30, said she lost her job at a dry cleaning business.
“I’d been there for six years, but because of the economy people aren’t having their clothes dry-cleaned as often,” she said.
Reeves, a single mother of three, went back to school and completed a nursing assistant program. She just started a job in that field but is struggling to catch up on bills. “This will help,” she said of the bureau.
McKenna and the other early birds in her family were there for various reasons.
Judith Barnes, the family’s matriarch, is 52 and battling arthritis, diabetes and scoliosis. Sitting in a wheelchair in the cold, she said her niece dropped off her five children at Barnes’ home a year ago and never returned. Barnes is raising four of the kids, and McKenna is raising one.
Later, back inside the bureau, Deer Park resident Dottie Instasi made her way through the crowded toy room. She has attended the bureau for the past three years.
Her family got behind on bills when Instasi’s 5-year-old daughter, Trinity, was diagnosed with leukemia and spent three months in the hospital last fall.
In the end, Trinity could only communicate by squeezing her mother’s hand. She learned that she was going to be a big sister, and she squeezed twice to tell Instasi she thought the baby would be a girl.
Trinity didn’t live to meet Izzaybella Grace, who at 7 months rested in a carrier in Instasi’s arms at the bureau.
“God had his hand in it, bringing me another daughter,” said Instasi, 32.
The bureau gifts are the nicest toys her children receive for Christmas, and the $40 grocery voucher will help tremendously, said Instasi, who also has five teenage stepchildren.
Instasi said coming to the bureau is always a joyous day.
The way she sees it, “I shouldn’t be embarrassed for it, because it’s for my kids.”
The Christmas Fund received a boost Wednesday with $33,740 in new donations. That puts the total raised at $135,622, moving the fund closer to its $500,000 goal.
Northwest Farm Credit Services, of Spokane, gave $8,000 to support the bureau in its “efforts to brighten the lives of so many families in our community,” wrote President and CEO Jay B. Penick.
Hotstart Manufacturing Co., of Spokane, also donated $8,000.
“I know that all of our employees and the community appreciate your effort to help those less fortunate than us during this holiday season,” wrote CEO Rick Robinson.
Spokane residents Phil and Judy Camp gave $1,000, as did two anonymous donors.
“Please accept the enclosed contribution in memory of our parents,” wrote one anonymous giver. “Thank you for all the good you do, and best wishes to all of you for a wonderful holiday season.”
Four anonymous donors gave $500 each, including one who wrote: “I hope this will help bring some hope for a better new year to those who struggle, those who are alone and those who just need a little boost.”
Spokane residents Joe and Jeanie Hensley sent $500 in memory of Marion and Al Gittel. Steve Smitherman, of Spokane, gave $500 in memory of his wife, Lisa Marie Smitherman. John Baumhofer, of Spokane, continued his tradition of giving $500 in memory of his mother.
Helen J. Mitchel contributed $400, as did Tim and Sally Quirk, who gave in memory of Donna Hanson, “because toys and books are such an important part of childhood.”
Gail and Roberta Keeling, of Otis Orchards, sent $350 in honor of their grandsons Taylor Merkley, Kolby Keeling and Ryan Keeling.
“We are so grateful for all the blessings in our lives and wish to share with others,” they wrote.
Two anonymous donors sent $300 each, including one who gave in memory of Yvonne Dailey.
“For two and a half years she gave out warm clothes, toiletries, food, love and hugs to the teens living on the streets at Crosswalk, Riverview Group Home and Spokane Juvenile Detention. She gave until she ran out of money and then sold her house … and moved into an apartment so she would have funds to continue being ‘Street Grandma’ and provide for the teens,” the donor wrote.
The Spokane Inland Empire Chapter of the Ex-Prisoners of War gave $300, as did Gust Abariotes, of Spokane Valley, and Craig and Pauline Soehren, of Spokane.
Dionisio and Patricia Morales, of Medical Lake, sent $250, as did Jodi Harland and Mead residents Steve and Barbara Stoyanac.
Mark and Jessie Bekken, of Questor Marketing Inc., gave $200 “with thanks to our clients that make this gift possible.”
Five anonymous donors sent $200 each, as did Spokane residents Bob and Vi Bedford; Michael Brandt; Judy Laddon and Larry Shook; Mr. and Mrs. Howard B. Pilcher; and the Crystal Chandeliers Ballroom Dance Club.
John and Dawn Shuster donated $175.
Carly and Calvin Crooks gave $150 “in memory of mom.”
Merle and Dolores Gilmore, of Spokane Valley, sent $150, as did Mike and Ione Howson; Morris, Lucille and Michael Slavens, of Spokane; and “friends and family of Jared Ball,” who have donated for the past five years in his memory.
Tannis Witherspoon, of Spokane, donated $110.
The following donors gave $100:
Carla Davis; D.J. Irvin Co. Inc., of Spokane; Spokane residents Werner and Marlene Westhoff; Annette Lacombe; Jim and Julie Lehr; Fred and Geraldine Fait; Joyce Stefanoff; Joe and Cheryl Deitering; Cheryl and Pat Pritchard; George and Joyce Schroeder; Grace and Scott Hege; Marcy and Mark Majeski; Wayne and Joyce Attwood; Robert L. Simpson, who gave in recognition of “Robin’s generosity and love for all things great and small”; Ron and Dolores Holm, who gave in memory of Betsy; and Viola Burchett, in memory of Tim Burchett, Gail Burchett and Gladys Sipe.
Also giving $100: Melvin Griffith; Rosemary Twomey, of Round Lake, Ill.; Phyllis Wilson, of Nine Mile Falls; Kenneth and Helen Evans, of Mead; Cecelia Schucker, of Spokane Valley; Myrna and Thomas Olson, of Spokane Valley; Albert and Jean Pistorius, of Hayden Lake; Jan Darc, of Coeur d’Alene; Pete Sherve, of Northport, Wash.; Eric and Marian Anderson, of Nine Mile Falls; John and Beverly Johnson, of Spokane Valley; and the American Christian Redneck Association, of Coolin, Idaho.
“Blessed to still have our jobs,” the association wrote. “Hope this helps those who don’t.”
LizAnn and Leonard Murphy, of Deer Park, sent $100 in the name of Nathan, Jordan and “No. 3 Lewis” and a note: “Please have a very merry Christmas to all.”
Susan Mincey, of Medical Lake, gave $100 and wrote, “Hope this donation will help one or two of the needy this year.”
And Tamara Evers sent $100 on behalf of family and friends.
“Thank you for being there and making Christmas a little nicer and brighter for many, especially the children,” Evers wrote.
Nine anonymous donors gave $100, including one honoring Garth Mason and Lisa Portrey and another in memory of Marilyn (Mrs. Don) Wiley.
Bob, Pansy, PJ and Zach George, of Spokane, sent $75.
Harvey and Dorothy Lochhead, of Spokane, gave $65.
Richard and Maxine Malone, of Spokane Valley, donated $60 in honor of their daughter and son-in-law, Sharen and Ken Loeffler, of Helena.
“They had asked that no gift be given to them this year,” Maxine Malone wrote.
Five anonymous donors sent $50 each, including one who wrote, “God bless you for helping those in need.”
The following Spokane residents donated $50:
Barbara Kuntz; Jean Flechel; Dick and Ann Collins; Pat and Darlene Reilly; Tim and Marcia Dorwin; Tom Highland and Barbara Crawford; Wanda Freese; Jim and Jackie Vroman; David and Kathy Merritt; Greg and Jeanne King; Ben C. Schudel Jr., who gave in memory of his wife, Ruthann Schudel; and Mrs. N. Jalufka, in memory of Nelson Jalufka.
Carol Wilson, of Spokane Valley, sent $50 in memory of her husband. “Contributing to this fund was a must for him,” she wrote.
Ted and Louise Otto, of Cheney, sent $50, as did Joyce Callaway, of Medical Lake, who wrote, “The need is greater than ever before.”
Martin Bavuso gave $50 and wrote, “This year it is a challenge for many of us to donate, but for those who have lost incomes and homes it is an especially devastating time. May this small contribution help make someone’s Christmas a little more tolerable.”
Clinton and Patricia Degenhart, of Spokane, sent $40, as did Jay, Debbie, Zack and Jenna Humphrey, of Spokane, in memory of Vera Romero and Zach Smith. Spokane Valley resident Gordon Landberg sent $35.
An anonymous donor gave $30, as did Mary Benham, of Spokane.
Phil Schumaker, of Spokane, sent $25, as did Deborah Carpenter and Sharron and Rex Schimke, of Deer Park, in memory of Sharron’s father, Donald Grippen.
Cheney resident Kathleen Winters donated $25 in memory of “my dearest cousin, Joan, who passed away Oct. 24.”
Three anonymous donors sent $20 each, as did the Happy Slip and Stitch Sewing Club, Spokane resident Roy Charlton, and Spokane resident Shirley Dicus “to honor Lloyd Brown.”
Fern Showacre, of Spokane, donated $10.