Spokane Valley resident Sally Olson has spent the past two days entering data about recipients into a computer system, tracking names, addresses, income and other information about some of the 32,000 people expected to seek help at the Christmas Bureau this year.
She hears heartbreaking stories of poverty, job loss and illness, including one woman who came through the line Wednesday and said her husband, who is in his 40s, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“I try not to shed any tears, but sometimes I can’t help it,” Olson said. “At the end of the day, you think of all those people and how much they need, and you feel good knowing you did something to help.”
About 300 volunteers will log time at the bureau this week and next, moving people through lines, restocking toys and baby-sitting young children as their parents select gifts.
But their duties go beyond just logging time. Their most important role is showing respect and kindness to people who don’t always receive that in their daily lives, said Christmas Bureau Coordinator Theresa Dryden.
“The motto has been, ‘They might not remember what they received, but they’ll remember how they were treated,’ ” Dryden said, quoting something former Catholic Charities Executive Director Donna Hanson used to say. “The volunteers are the key to this event.”
The Christmas Bureau is a 10-day event that distributes grocery vouchers, toys and books to needy people. It’s organized by The Spokesman-Review, Catholic Charities and Volunteers of America and is funded through donations from the community.
Volunteers served 3,934 people Thursday – including 2,101 children – and gave out $34,853 worth of food vouchers.
“I can do anything,” volunteer Ian Johnstone enthusiastically told Dryden as he reported for duty Thursday morning, keeping pace with her as she briskly made her way through the building, preparing for the day. “I can take out garbage, whatever. You just tell me what to do.”
Johnstone is general manager of Cenex Zip Trip and had a crew of 24 of his employees helping at the bureau Thursday.
“We’re blessed, and we’re here to pay it forward,” he said.
By midmorning, Johnstone had done a little bit of everything, as he’d promised.
“I’m line controller now, but I’ve moved chairs, picked up garbage and tested candy,” he said, laughing. “I’m here to make people smile.”
Spokane resident Del Topoll, 76, has volunteered for the bureau for 10 years. As families come out of the toy room, he puts the gifts, books and candy they’ve received into plastic bags and adds batteries if the toys they’ve chosen require them.
“Everyone is very gracious,” he said. “They all thank us.”
Olson, the volunteer stationed at the computers, has been giving her time at the bureau for the past four years.
For the first time this week, she had a recipient, a woman in her late 20s, turn down the $40 grocery voucher.
“She said, ‘The Salvation Army gave me something and I get food stamps. Save it for someone else. I just want to get toys for my children,’ ” Olson recalled. “After that, no one could have said anything to ruin my day.”
The conversation confirmed what Olson already knew, that the Christmas Bureau is a special place.
“To me, this is Christmas,” she said.
New donations totaling $13,637 came in Thursday, bumping the Christmas Fund to $149,259 and a bit closer to this year’s $500,000 goal.
Testcomm LLC, a Spokane company that tests and verifies mechanical and building systems to determine whether they operate as designed, donated $6,000.
“Since our inception in 1995, we have increased our contribution every year to reflect the growth of our company,” wrote manager Jerry Ensminger. “This year is no exception.”
Greg and Ann Hougham, of Spokane, gave $1,000.
Ronald and Shirley Schoenberger gave $935, honoring a commitment they made when they began donating to the fund 23 years ago.
“We agreed to increase our yearly contribution by 10 percent each succeeding year,” the Schoenbergers wrote, encouraging others to give for the first time or increase their regular donation amount.
“There are many deserving citizens who need assistance this year,” they wrote. “Let’s honor them with our support.”
Two anonymous donors sent $500 each, as did Ed and Virginia English, of Spokane.
As they have for several years, Spokane residents Shirley and Matt Alling donated to the fund at the request of Shirley’s mother, Frances Joachim, in place of a Christmas gift.
“This year, we are also giving ourselves that same gift in honor of our fathers, Milbert Joachim and George Alling,” the Allings wrote on a note included with a $500 check. “This will be the best gift for us this Christmas.”
Spokane residents Richard and Angela Young sent $400 in memory of Ken Trent, “who was important in getting the Christmas Fund started.”
An anonymous donor gave $200 and wished “peace, love and comfort to those who lost loved ones in 2009.”
Vera Banta, of Spokane Valley, sent $200 in memory of Dean H. Banta and James Shively.
“I have been so fortunate during my 96 years, that I am happy to help someone in need,” she wrote.
Harry and Donna Fuhs, of Spokane, gave $200, as did Spokane resident Beverly Massie.
An anonymous donor sent $162.
Lorna Stevenson, of Spokane, gave $150, as did an anonymous donor who wrote, “The work done with this money cannot be counted in dollars and cents. Congratulations and keep this up!”
Spokane residents Ronald and Naomi Franklin donated $125.
Three anonymous donors sent $100 each, one in memory of Vera Actor, who “faithfully supported the fund during her lifetime.”
The following Spokane residents gave $100:
Irene and Robert Plough; Sandra Hatch; Richard and Alice Hayes; Dr. Kenneth E. Rydbom; Julie and Jeff Morris; Paul Cottrell; and Gregory and Heather Gores.
Spokane Valley residents Virginia and Ed Schoer sent $100, as did the Haas family, of Colbert; Gary and Judy Spangelo, of Cheney; and Jim and Marlene McBride, of Nine Mile Falls, who wrote, “Continue with the good deeds.”
Two anonymous donors gave $80 and $50 each.
The following Spokane residents sent $50:
Loyce Lewis; Evie and Jim Johnson; Dick and Beth Schomburg, who wrote, “We hope this donation helps some people have a merry Christmas”; and Jim and Heidi Logan, who sent it as a birthday gift from Spokane Valley resident Mike Peters.
Coeur d’Alene residents Jack and Mareldine Blake donated $50.
Jim and Sandie Lee Donahue, of Spokane Valley, gave $30. The McCoys, of Spokane Valley, sent $25.
Two anonymous donors sent $25 each, and another sent $20.
Helene Heuvel, of Priest River, Idaho, donated $10.