The East Central Community Center was awash in teddy bears recently. Mrs. Claus, aka longtime volunteer Phyllis Daily, sat on a sofa surrounded by the cuddly toys. Daily and many other Santa’s helpers are getting ready for the center’s annual holiday event.
For 30 years, the center has hosted Toyland, providing toys and treats to children who might not have much of a Christmas otherwise. The East Central Neighborhood Wellness Association sponsors the celebration. “Last year we served over 800 individuals,” said the center’s acting director, Kathy Armstrong. “All children were given toys and goodies and the families were entered in a holiday raffle.”
This year Armstrong anticipates an even bigger crowd for the Dec. 10 event. She said they’ve seen an increased need in the center’s other programs like the food bank and Coats 4 Kids.
Unfortunately, giving has been down. “Donations have started off low this year, but we expect the needs to be higher,” said Armstrong. “Last year we raised $7,000 – this year we have $300.”
The center is located in one of the poorest areas in Spokane. Armstrong said. “Seventy-five percent of children in the East Central neighborhood receive free and reduced priced lunch.”
While children 12 and under will receive a gift, increased demands and decreased funds mean changes for the holiday party. In the past, families were treated to a traditional turkey dinner. This year, they will receive cookies and milk. And even that is expensive.
“We’re thinking it will cost $800 for cookies and milk,” said Armstrong.
Still, the celebration will go on. Armstrong got a great deal on teddy bears she purchased wholesale, and other community organizations are stepping up. Inland Imaging brought $500 worth of toys to the center, and St. Ann’s Catholic Church is putting together coloring book packages. Bed Bath & Beyond provided bedding sets to be raffled off, and Armstrong hopes other businesses will provide gift certificates and raffle baskets.
It takes a multitude of elves to keep Toyland running smoothly. Armstrong said the event wouldn’t be possible without the assistance of volunteers from the East Side Kiwanis Club, the Southeast Lions Club and members of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.
The center’s rec room will be transformed into a glittering Toyland. Santa’s helpers will greet the guests and shepherd them through the wonderland. “People line up outside and wait for hours,” said Armstrong.
Daily agrees: “Last year when I got here, the line stretched around the building.”
This is Daily’s second year as Mrs. Claus, though she said, “I’ve been volunteering here forever.”
She considers the folks at the center her extended family. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Daily performs her “Milk Lady” duties. “I load up my cart with milk, juice, hugs, kisses, words of encouragement and lots of love,” she said.
The Mrs. Claus gig is right up her alley. She’s got the jingle bell earrings and necklace, a Christmas sweater vest and of course, a Santa hat. She’s also got a welcoming smile, sure to soothe kids who find Santa intimidating. “Mrs. Claus is less scary,” Daily said. “There will be so many children! I’m really excited!”