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‘Emotional month’ adds to season

Fri., Dec. 25, 2009, 12:50 a.m.

Spokesman-Review correspondent Megan Cooley,  right, interviews longtime Christmas Bureau volunteer Fern Swecker on the bureau’s opening day, Dec. 9, at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center. (Dan Pelle)
Spokesman-Review correspondent Megan Cooley, right, interviews longtime Christmas Bureau volunteer Fern Swecker on the bureau’s opening day, Dec. 9, at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center. (Dan Pelle)

‘Emotional month’ adds to season

When City Editor Addy Hatch asked me in October to be the newspaper’s 2009 Christmas Bureau reporter, my first reaction was, “Sure, but can we do it in February?”

With two small children at home, I worried that covering the bureau would interfere with the cookie baking, carol singing and other merriment that surrounds Christmastime. Soon enough I learned, though, that being part of the bureau enhances the holidays. It doesn’t take away from them.

My husband works in public schools and I’ve been a reporter for several years, so I can’t tell you that being at the bureau opened my eyes to a slice of our community I didn’t know existed. Still, walking into the Ag Building at the fairgrounds on the bureau’s first day overwhelmed me.

To see that many people (more than 5,900 on opening day; 35,883 overall) standing in line for two or three hours to receive a grocery voucher for $18 to $40 and toys for their children broke my heart.

It’s been an emotional month. One minute, I was listening to stories of people who have lost their jobs, who are desperate, and who want – just like I do – for their kids to have a merry Christmas.

Then I’d spend a few minutes watching the volunteers interact with the recipients, volunteers like Bonni Atkinson, who never seemed to take a break, and Gordon Kilpatrick, who drove from Metaline, Wash., to give his time and footed his own hotel bill for four nights to be part of it.

There were many scenes that never made their way into stories, like the volunteer who collected dolls from thrift shops throughout the year and then secretly gave them to children as they approached his station.

One recipient couldn’t make eye contact with the volunteer who was printing out her food voucher. Looking down, she explained that her husband had just left her and their two children. The volunteer reached out her hand, the recipient squeezed it and finally looked up, with tears streaming down her face.

“She was so ashamed,” the volunteer said later.

After an hour or two at the bureau each day, I’d head to the newsroom and sort through the latest donations.

Early on, Catholic Charities Director of Development Ann Marie Byrd told me she reads through the list of donors in the paper every day – nodding her head as she goes as a way to say thank you.

It was an honor for me to see those cards and notes firsthand, to read personal stories of loss, gratitude and encouragement for people in need. I was touched that so many members of our community gave, unconditionally, simply so others could have a merry Christmas.

On the bureau’s last day, Mayor Mary Verner stopped by. Verner knows what it’s like to struggle financially. When she was a single mom in graduate school, she had to apply for welfare.

“I was treated like the scum of the earth,” Verner told me, “so I walked out.”

Realizing she had to feed her family, Verner swallowed her pride and went back to the welfare agency.

That experience made Verner even more grateful for the respectful way Christmas Bureau volunteers treat recipients.

The Christmas Bureau has its critics. At, a few readers left comments on my stories questioning whether some recipients truly needed the help. I can’t vouch for the financial circumstances of all 35,883 recipients, but that’s not what it’s all about anyway. If someone is willing to stand in line for two or three hours for a toy and some grocery money, good golly, give them a hand.

The Christmas Bureau isn’t going to solve poverty. It’s a handout, yes, but a beautiful one.

To me, the bureau is a symbol that – just when you think the world is against you – thousands of your neighbors care about you and your family.

And they want you to have a merry Christmas.

Megan Cooley can be reached at (509) 459-5489 or

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