Volunteers of America Executive Director Marilee Roloff once read something Oprah Winfrey said, and it has always stuck with her.
When Winfrey was 12 and living on welfare with her mother and two siblings, three nuns came to their door with food and gifts on Christmas.
“The real gift wasn’t the toy,” Roloff recalled Winfrey saying. “The real gift was having an answer the next day when the other kids asked, ‘What’d you get for Christmas?’ ”
The Spokesman-Review Christmas Fund is kicking off its 2009 effort to give children in Spokane their own answers this holiday season.
The campaign is a partnership among the newspaper, Catholic Charities and Volunteers of America. It raises money to give toys, books and food vouchers to needy families during the 10-day Christmas Bureau, which will be open Dec. 9-12 and Dec. 14-19 at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center.
In light of this year’s tough economy and growing need, organizers bumped this year’s Christmas Fund goal to $500,000 from 2008’s $495,000 goal.
Theresa Dryden, special events coordinator at Catholic Charities, estimated the number of people served at the bureau might grow to 30,040 this year – about 900 more people than last year – so organizers agreed to a goal to match that expected increase.
The charity began in 1945, and over the years has raised $11.7 million, making 2009 the year donors will likely push the fund over the $12 million mark, said Spokesman-Review Publisher Stacey Cowles.
Families who visit the bureau are given up to $40 in food vouchers and then walk through an area where they can choose a new book and toy for each of their children. In 2008, the Christmas Bureau brightened the holidays of 15,601 children.
“For most who walk through our doors, this is the only Christmas they’ll get,” said Catholic Charities Executive Director Rob McCann. “This is their only shot at having a decent Christmas dinner, and it’s their only shot at getting a gift or two for their kids.”
The Christmas Fund doesn’t receive money from government programs or faraway philanthropic organizations. It’s funded entirely by the generosity of local people.
“I would put this community up against any in the country in terms of its ability to care for its most vulnerable,” McCann said.
And the program runs lean. Only about 4 percent of the money raised covers the cost of running the fund. The rest goes directly back to people in need.
“Most nonprofits are fairly happy to have their overhead anywhere near 10 or 11 percent,” McCann said. “To be at 4 percent is truly a reflection of the hard-working volunteers that make it all happen.”
Roloff, of Volunteers of America, said the Christmas Bureau provides a glimmer of hope and joy for families who are struggling to find work, make ends meet and provide all that they can for their children.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to face your kids on Christmas morning with nothing,” Roloff said. “The expectations (for Christmas) are so high, and there’s not a child in this country that can ignore it.”