Imagine being poor and hungry and wanting to celebrate Christmas with your family.
Now imagine you don’t understand the language spoken where you live. You don’t know where or how to apply for a job. You can’t read signs telling people where they can find help.
For many of the Russian-speaking recipients at the Christmas Bureau, a 10-day event that distributes food vouchers, toys and books to needy families, that’s reality.
“Around town, it can be difficult for them,” said Christmas Bureau Coordinator Theresa Dryden. “And then they come in here and can communicate easily with somebody.”
That’s because the Christmas Bureau has two Russian-speaking interpreters on site at all times.
“Just to hear someone’s voice and to be able to tell your story is so important,” Dryden said. “Some recipients come and go quickly. They’re embarrassed to come. But others want to tell their story.”
The Christmas Bureau is a 64-year-old charity organized by The Spokesman-Review, Catholic Charities and Volunteers of America. It’s funded through donations from the community.
The bureau doesn’t track recipients’ national origin, first language or ethnicity, but Russian speakers make up a “good percentage” of the people who come for help, Dryden said.
The bureau’s two interpreters keep busy checking in recipients and handling other situations, such as a woman who had trouble breathing Friday because she felt overwhelmed and a family that became lost and confused as they made their way through the line.
Despite the sometimes tense scenarios, interpreter Natalya Kuhn enjoys her job.
“I was full of energy yesterday after the day was over,” Kuhn said. “I told my husband it was big fun to help people.”
The interpreters’ role goes beyond just translating words. Kuhn said it’s important to catch the cultural nuances that affect the immigrants’ ability to get help.
Since many of those recipients spent years living under Soviet rule, she said, they’re nervous about reaching out to what’s perceived to be an authority figure. If the first piece of identification they show Kuhn during the intake process isn’t what the bureau needs, they start to retreat, apologize and say they don’t want to be a bother.
“The people are shy to ask for help. They’re a little scared to ask,” Kuhn said. “(The interpreters) need to recognize that.”
Kuhn moved to Spokane from near St. Petersburg, Russia, in 2006 after meeting and marrying an American. Like most Eastern European immigrants who follow the Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian one, she celebrates Christmas on Jan. 7. Kuhn is adapting to American ways, though, so she also celebrates the holiday on Dec. 25.
Kuhn said that in America, Christmas is more commercialized than in her homeland.
“Here you can celebrate Christmas and not go to church,” she said. “In Russia, that’s not possible.”
Kuhn didn’t know of programs similar to the Christmas Bureau in Eastern Europe, and she said the recipients are often surprised and always grateful for the gifts. She recalled helping a 22-year-old woman last year who’d only been in the U.S. for two weeks when the bureau opened.
“She had no English. I walked her through and helped her choose gifts,” Kuhn said. “She was almost crying, and she said, ‘I didn’t know people were so kind.’ ”
To the young woman, everything in the U.S. was new and strange, Kuhn said.
“And then you have something wonderful and unexpected,” she said.
The interpreters are paid for their service – an indication of the importance the Christmas Fund, which operates with only 4 percent overhead, places on the need to communicate with its recipients.
But it’s clear that Kuhn and the other translators treat their roles at the bureau as more than just a job.
“In Russian, I could explain this better,” Kuhn said, taking a deep breath. “I’m full of emotions.”
The Christmas Bureau served 1,728 adults and 2,024 children Saturday, or about 200 more people than the 2008 bureau’s first Saturday.
Dryden speculated that the snow in this week’s forecast might have prompted some recipients to come sooner than they otherwise planned.
The bureau will be closed today. It reopens Monday at 10 a.m.
Thanks to new donations from the community, the Christmas Fund has bumped up to $179,684, moving closer to this year’s $500,000 goal.
Northwest Orthopaedic Specialists PS, of Spokane, gave the fund a big boost with a $10,000 donation.
“We appreciate the endeavors of the staff at the S-R Christmas Fund and believe that it represents the true spirit of giving back to those in need,” wrote Dr. Douglas G. Norquist, president of the practice. “Thank you for inspiring our wonderful community and sharing what we believe makes the holidays most enjoyable.”
An anonymous business donated $1,078 and wrote, “We are thankful for the ministry this organization provides to our community. … May God continue to bless your efforts in the New Year.”
Dorian Studio, the downtown Spokane photography studio destroyed in a 2008 fire, gave $700 “in honor of all our loyal customers, wonderful employees and in gratitude for the firefighters of Spokane.
“We wish everyone a peace-filled holiday,” wrote Joe and Yvonne Mark, Holly Parker, John Mark and Jason Mark.
Leigh Halvorson sent $500.
Iron Bridge LLC gave $500.
“Thanks to the Spokane business community for supporting Iron Bridge Office Campus and helping those in need (during) these brutal economic times,” wrote Iron Bridge developer Kent Hull.
Spokane Production Service Inc. sent $500, as did Rain Shadow Research Inc., of Spokane.
“Thank you for helping so many people during this holiday season, and especially during these times when there are so many who need a hand up,” wrote President Matthew Root and Secretary-Treasurer Sarah Moore.
Rick and Diana Wilhite, of Spokane Valley, donated $500 in memory of Claud and Reta Wilhite and Bob and Jean Peterson.
“We were blessed by parents who believed in the spirit of Christmas,” the Wilhites wrote.
Spokane resident Cynthia Wynn donated $400.
Wray Farmin Jr. and family gave $300.
Spokane residents Dan and Nettie Simonson sent $200 in memory of Christine, Stewart, Mary Jane, Kent and Dorothy Simonson.
The staff of Dr. Paul Reamer’s office gave $200 in memory of his father, Fran Reamer.
An anonymous donor gave $200, as did Stephen Scott, of Spokane, who wrote, “Merry Christmas to everyone working at the Christmas Bureau.”
Spokane resident Margaret Miller donated $140.
Catherine A. Lundberg, of Spokane, gave $130 and wrote, “Thanks to all of you who work so hard to make this happen.”
Nine Mile Falls resident Margaret Clemons sent $125 and wrote, “Thank you for your help in bringing goodness to folks in need.”
Five anonymous donors sent $100 each, including one in memory of Patti Fowler. Spokane residents Tim and Randi O’Brien also gave $100, as did Robert and Patricia Loomis.
John H. Tiffany Sr. and family, of Spokane Valley, sent $75 in memory of wife and mother Dorothy.
Two anonymous donors sent $50 each, as did Spokane residents Kenneth and Linda Leyde; Brian Donahue and Tracey McHenry; and Bernard and Kathleen Korth. Spokane Valley residents James and Helen Skindlov gave $50 “in gratitude for our many blessings.”
Nine Mile Falls residents Claudia and Richard Kroll donated $30, as did James and Char Hitter, of Liberty Lake.
Two anonymous donors sent $25 each, one of whom wrote:
“As a relative newcomer to the Spokane area, I’ve spent a lot of time complaining about Spokane and all I did not like. I realize now what generous people we have here. Spokane can be proud.”