It was a day of firsts – and one exciting near-first – at the Christmas Bureau on Friday.
Volunteers served more people than on any previous first day: 6,958, including 3,815 children. The previous opening-day record was set in 2009, when about 5,900 people were served.
And it was the first day bureau volunteers sent a woman apparently in labor away in an ambulance.
Alas, Lorelei Ellis and Corey Blackman’s boy won’t be the first Christmas Bureau baby – it turns out she was having Braxton Hicks contractions, also known as false labor, Ellis said Friday evening, home from the hospital.
Still, the baby caused a commotion at the bureau Friday afternoon as volunteers and other recipients rushed to locate Blackman and hurry him through the line to collect their gifts while Ellis waited. Then workers rushed the couple into an ambulance.
“She looked white, and you could see her stomach moving,” bureau co-chairwoman Christy Folkins said.
The baby is due Christmas Day, Ellis said. She’s hoping he’s born before that. In any case, he and his 2-year-old sister will each have a gift from the Christmas Bureau.
So will nearly 7,000 other people, thanks to the efforts and donations of hundreds of bureau volunteers and donors to the Christmas Fund, which pays the bills. Judy Lee, the bureau’s coordinator, said she expects a big crowd again today.
On Friday morning, Rachel Pound was first in line.
It was still dark when Pound and 10 members of her extended family set up a little camp of folding chairs outside the gate at the fairgrounds parking lot. They arrived at 3:30 a.m.
Bureau coordinators opened early Friday to accommodate the crowd, and by 8:30 a.m., Pound, 37 – a single mother of five – had a sack of children’s books, a scooter and a magnetic drawing toy. She was studying her options for three more toys – the bureau gives recipients a book and a toy for each of their children, along with a grocery voucher.
Pound had gotten an hour and a half of sleep, she said before the sky grew light and the doors opened. But she was glad the bureau was there.
“It helps our kids,” she said. “It helps us.”
Wendy Miller, 37, a single mother from Colbert, arrived at 7 a.m. As she waited outside for the doors to open, she said the toy she’d choose for her son – “he’s all boy, so anything with wheels” – would be his gift from Santa Claus.
Miller chose a toy for her son at the bureau last year, too, she said. And while it was cold then, as well, and the wait was long, “The smile on his face on Christmas morning was worth every bit of it. He got a big yellow dump truck. He still loves it.”
Another mother in line, Coral Smith, 22, said she lost her job in October as an employment resource counselor. She’s applied for jobs – “everything and anything” – with no results, but she’s hoping to get into a carpentry apprenticeship program.
In the meantime, she was hoping to get a doll for her daughter, Annabelle, who’ll turn 2 on Sunday.
Smith wasn’t surprised by the size of the crowd, she said. She went to a kids-clothing giveaway a month ago and found a throng of people.
“I figured, with the economy, everybody needs help,” Smith said.
Even after bureau workers opened the doors and started serving people, the line grew steadily Friday morning, to five people wide in some places. At 10:30, it extended from the entrance of the fairgrounds’ agriculture building to the parking lot, then nearly to Broadway Avenue.
The temperature Friday never rose above 30 degrees. After getting inside, recipients faced a long, though warmer, wait.
Elizabeth McSpadden, 31, arrived a few minutes after 10 a.m. and faced an hours-long wait. She wore a furry hood and thick gloves and gripped a fat folder of documents. It was far more paperwork than she’d need to receive a grocery voucher and gifts for her four children, ages 1 to 12, her husband and herself.
Last year the bureau closed before she could get in, she said. She hoped it would go better this time. “I have a lot of faith, and I pray about things,” she said.
McSpadden said her family receives state assistance and she babysits for cash. Her husband, who lost his job in the heating and cooling industry, sells plasma. He plans to go to North Dakota soon to find a job, maybe driving a truck, near the booming oil fields there, she said. And she’s hopeful she’ll get a night-desk job she heard about, she said.
“Hopefully next year we won’t have to utilize this organization,” she said.
Inside, volunteers offered warm welcomes along with the Christmas gifts.
“When you come here, obviously you need a little bit of cheering up, and that’s what we’re here for,” said Ana Smith, who greeted people Friday morning as they walked in.
Smith answered questions about ID requirements and tried to make more room inside so more people could come in from the cold.
“Folks, if we could move up a little more, I’d really appreciate it,” she called into the crowd.
“Lady, you need a bullhorn,” offered a woman in line. “Or a chair.”
Smith, in her 14th year as a bureau volunteer, is 4-foot-8.
“Every year I get a kid – ‘Are you an elf?’ ” Smith said. “Yes, I am the Christmas elf.”
The Christmas Fund now stands at $133,375.01.
An anonymous donor from Spokane gave $1,150 in honor of Tom and Lori Huling.
Justin and Tamie Voelker, of Spokane Valley, gave $1,000. Colvico, a Spokane company, also gave $1,000. An anonymous donor from Post Falls gave $1,000 “in loving memory of Al and Lilian Rudolf, whose lives exemplified the joy of giving.” And another donor who gave $1,000 wrote: “I hope this gift brings smiles and joy to some of those in need this Christmas. Sign me ‘Anonymous,’ or ‘One who counts her blessings with a grateful heart.’”
Michael Flannery and Dean Lynch, of Spokane, gave $500 in memory of Francis Flannery, Norah Flannery and Gordon Lynch. Other Spokane residents who gave $500: Rex and Susan Fuller; Kath’ren Bay and Alexis Higdon; Jeff and Cindee Corrick; and Pearl Johnson. The Cowles Co. and Cowles Publishing Co. donated $500 “in thanks and recognition of families of recently and not-so-recently retired employees of Cowles Co.” The company donated money normally spent on corporate cards and gifts “in the hope that this will help spread the joy of the season where it is most desperately needed.”
The Robert and Mary Alice Jones family, of Spokane Valley, gave $500 in memory of Marybelle Clark and Evelyn Phillips. An anonymous donor gave $500 in memory of Richard McInerney.
Two separate anonymous donors from Spokane gave $300.
J&J Drilling, of Greenacres, gave $200. An anonymous donor from Spokane also gave $200.
Mary Giannini and Art Harlow, of Spokane, gave $155 “in honor of and memory of our parents.”
These Spokane residents gave $150: Michael and Kathleen Eaton; Rebecca Curry; and Jack Curry.
RK and Eva Akers, of Spokane, gave $125. “With this check comes a wish that a little child will believe there really is a Santa Claus,” they wrote.
Donald and Beverly Miner, of Spokane, gave $100 in memory of Edna Gump, “who was a loyal contributor for many years.” Other Spokane residents who gave $100: an anonymous donor, in memory of Charles and Opal McCoy; Fred and Geraldine Fait; and John Dowd. Spokane Valley residents who gave $100: Mr. and Mrs. Don Lippman; and Janice Eastman.
Also giving $100: Les Hunt; Sandra and Michael Povich; Diana and Larry Helmer, of Colbert; Kenneth and Sondra Goodner, of Four Lakes; Amy and Gregory Ammons, of Cheney; and Bob and Lois Banta, of Liberty Lake.
Dupree Building Specialties, of Spokane, gave $80.
Shirley Curts, of Spokane, gave $50 “in memory of my dear friend Mildred. I miss you so.” Other Spokane residents who gave $50: Phillip and Maralee Barto; Ken and Phyllis Seiler; W.T. and Charlotte Ardiss; and Rocky and Bonnie Elliott. Mrs. Callaway, of Medical Lake, also gave $50.
Shirley Schoenleber, of Spokane Valley, gave $40.
Betty Wolf, of Spokane Valley, gave $30.
Gregory and Melodie Olsen, of Spokane, gave $25.