December 12, 2010 in City

Volunteers, mostly retirees, relish returning to Christmas Bureau

The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Volunteers Dean Duncan, left, and his wife, Mary, both 67, help Bob Brown, 66, stock the Christmas Bureau toy room with plastic sleds Wednesday.
(Full-size photo)

They give, and they get.

Most of them retirees, the hundreds of volunteers at the Christmas Bureau give their time, and they give the benefit of their experience. They are committed to giving a positive experience to the thousands of people they serve, many of whom can’t say thank you enough but some of whom are cold or cranky, humiliated or frustrated.

Catholic Charities Director Rob McCann repeated to the assembled volunteers last week a mantra he repeats to himself: “One good thing.” Even in the face of crankiness, they can provide what might be the one good thing the recipient receives that day, or that month.

But the volunteers get something out of it, too, and for many it’s profound.

“I’m excited for all of you who haven’t been here before,” bureau Co-Chairwoman Christy Folkins told the volunteers. “Because it’s going to become a part of you.”

Employees of Catholic Charities Spokane, the Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review put the framework together. The bureau gives food vouchers, toys and children’s books to families in need. Donations by newspaper readers pay the bills. Last year the Christmas Bureau served nearly 36,000 adults and children, and organizers expect about the same number this year.

The volunteers bring the bureau to life. The experience can be intense. They encounter people in vulnerable moments: the embarrassment displayed by a mother who’s never had to ask for help, the grief of a father who’s just lost his wife. Even the intensity of a recipient’s gratitude for an $18 grocery voucher, a windfall, can be overwhelming.

Heidi Preston, 55, of Spokane, puts recipients’ personal data into a computer at the bureau and put in long hours before it opened.

“It’s mostly for me,” Preston said. “It fills my heart up so much to help these people. You do get to see these people face to face, and you can see God in every one of them.”

Paul Dorning doesn’t love Christmas. The commercialism gets to him. He loves working at the Christmas Bureau. It’s become the highlight of his season, he said.

“The average person doesn’t get too many opportunities throughout the year to give back, to do something completely generous,” said Dorning, of Spokane. “I’m usually the Christmas Grinch, and this is my antidote for that.

“Between my grandchildren and this, I’m usually OK by Christmas.”

Range of tasks

The bureau is organized by section: ID check, computers, toy room and others. The sections have supervisors, people who know their ins and outs.

Volunteers find jobs they love and hold on to them. They recruit friends and spouses to help them. There’s a group that puts together the toys that arrive in parts, McCann said: “They’re just guys who like to wear X-ACTO knives on their belts.”

On Catholic Charities’ end, volunteer coordinator Brigid Krause filled 971 slots to run the bureau, drawing on a pool of more than 350 volunteers, many of whom took more than one shift. That’s in addition to the 50 volunteer slots filled through Volunteers of America, which runs the bureau’s book tables. That’s also in addition to the labor required on setup days.

Krause started putting together her schedule in September. Each volunteer goes through an application process and a background check.

The most popular request is to work in the toy room, Krause said, where volunteers can help parents pick out toys.

The behind-the-scenes work is fundamental. A few of the 971 spots are devoted to “cardboard control” – people who spend their days collecting and flattening the cases the toys were delivered in, preparing them for recycling.

Other volunteers spend their days scurrying between the toy room and the stockroom behind it, answering calls for fresh supplies: “We’re going to need some more of those ponies!”

While his fellow volunteers ate pizza and sipped coffee at tables nearby, Bryan Dobbins, of Cheney, sat low to the cold floor, aiming a small hair dryer at book cover after book cover, softening the glue under their discount-price stickers and peeling them off.

Don Ragan, 69, of Spokane Valley, is one of two brew masters.

“This is my fifth year, my third year working with the coffee,” he said.

The coffee is for volunteers and recipients. There’s no pleasing everybody.

“We do get a lot of advice on whether it’s too strong or not strong enough,” Ragan said.

For him, part of the point is to reconnect with his fellow volunteers.

“You meet people down here, and you create just kind of a relationship with them,” Ragan said. “It’s time to renew it.”

Much appreciated

Standing in line at the bureau, selecting gifts for their children, and resting on folding chairs after the hours-long process, recipients noted the respect shown them by volunteers.

Recipient Julie Andreason, 29, of Spokane, sat near the bureau’s exit on Thursday, opening day. It was her third year coming to the bureau. She had new books and toys for her 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, but asked why she’d returned, she said instantly: “The people.”

Sitting next to her, Tammy Ruggles, 37, of Spokane, had a Big Wheel-style trike for her 1-year-old boy. “The people are awesome,” she said. “Very kind and considerate, thinking of others.”

Many volunteers recount small moments with recipients that have made big impressions on them.

Scooter Mahoney, 63, a retired flight attendant, started volunteering 13 years ago. Now she seems to be everywhere at the bureau. Her official assignment is to help staff the computers where volunteers input recipients’ personal information. She’ll just as soon guide a tour through the whole operation or explain safety procedures to a new child-care volunteer.

She said the interactions with bureau recipients are moving, such as when first-time recipients tell her, “Usually we give.” When she encountered the grieving father, she veered from protocol and dropped what she was doing. She guided him personally through the rest of the bureau. In the end, she and another volunteer gave him a ride home – the crash that killed his wife had also totaled their car.

“That’s what keeps me coming back,” Mahoney said.

One year Mr. and Mrs. Claus stopped by the Christmas Bureau. Volunteer Fred Preston noticed a girl who was too little to see them over the crowd.

Asking her mother’s permission, Preston lifted the child. When her eyes lighted on Santa, he said, he saw joy in her face.

“That’s why I do this,” said Preston, 58.

Since he started at the bureau in 1992, Preston has lost two grandchildren. His wife, Ramona Preston, died of pancreatic cancer last month. She was 56.

This year Preston, of Spokane, is bureau co-chairman, serving with Folkins. When the bureau’s open, his favorite job is “line control,” because it lets him greet nearly every recipient. But he’s another person who’ll pitch in and do anything. He spoke Wednesday while helping to stack folding chairs after the volunteer orientation.

“God knows, you gotta keep busy,” he said.

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