As a child, Bonnie Atkinson felt safe at the Christmas Bureau.
It might have been “all those people who looked like grandmas,” giving away toys, who made her feel that way. She accompanied her single mother starting in 1969 on Christmastime trips to select gifts for Atkinson and her brother and sister.
As a young mother, still poor, Atkinson felt truly seen and heard at the Christmas Bureau, treated as an individual with a story.
“I felt like when I went there, somebody had a good idea of what I was going through,” she said.
She knew early, she said, that if she ever became able to give to a charity, it would be the Christmas Bureau. “Back then,” she said, “I thought it would be money.”
Instead, it’s a lot of time that Atkinson, 40 – the Christmas Bureau’s new co-chairwoman, in addition to two other chairpersons – gives to the charity, held annually at the fairgrounds to distribute toys, books and food vouchers to low-income families. Last year, the bureau served 35,612 people over 10 days.
The Christmas Bureau is paid for with donations by Spokesman-Review readers to the Christmas Fund. This year’s goal is $525,000. While there’s no income requirement, the people it serves are poor. In 2010, the average monthly income of households served was $1,003.
Along with time, Atkinson offers the benefit of her lifetime of experience with poverty and hardship.
“That’s the kind of wisdom we need the most in the bureau,” said Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities of Spokane, which works with Volunteers of America and the newspaper to host the event.
Atkinson’s wisdom has been hard-earned.
Through her years of service at the Christmas Bureau, she also has received gifts that have changed her life.
Some moments have made her cry, whether they’ve involved a recipient who vented their frustration against her or were very sad themselves.
“It’s pretty hard to hurt my feelings, but it can be done,” she said. “I am a very positive person, and I try to see the positive in everything. Sometimes you just got to laugh. You just got to.”
Grandmas meant safety to the girl who lived on welfare with mother, brother and sister in a one-bedroom home on her grandmother’s property in Spokane Valley. Christmas happened at Grandma’s house, meals, Saturday-morning cartoons.
The family moved to Hillyard when Atkinson was about 10, and Atkinson left home at 14. She “partied,” she said, drinking and smoking. She had a baby at 16. She got married.
She said by the time her second baby was born, when she was 20, she’d learned a lot about being a parent. She said her husband, on the other hand, had developed a meth addiction, and began to abuse her.
Eventually, to escape the worsening abuse, she loaded her children into her $200 Mustang and headed east, toward her sister’s home in Nebraska. They made it to just outside Big Timber, Mont., out of gas. It was snowing. Someone came along, gave Atkinson a gallon of gas and told her there was a town ahead.
She found a church in Big Timber, where someone called the police, who – for lack of other shelter – put the family up for the night in a warm jail cell. The next day, her sister wired her some money, and a police officer gave each of her children two sandwiches, some juice packs and a blanket.
It was when their children were grown or nearly so, in 2009, that her ex-husband apologized. She forgave him. She said she feels better that she did.
“Everything that he did do made me the person I am today, so how angry can I really be?” she said. “I lived.”
‘A new world’
In 2000, Atkinson was running the crane for a local sign company.
She loved her job, proud to be a rare female sign hanger and proud of the step the job represented toward independence.
She was 33 feet up in a boom, the bucket at the end of a long arm extending from a truck, working on a sign in downtown Spokane. A gear sheared, and Atkinson fell to the ground.
Among other injuries, three vertebrae in her back were essentially fused together. She still takes a daily regimen of pain medication and receives disability payments as a result of the accident.
It also put an end to that step toward independence. “I was not in a good place,” she said.
Another startling thing happened to Atkinson in 2004. She was living in a derelict trailer on a piece of property in Valleyford that a family friend had given her. The home provided a roof for Atkinson, her three children and her fiancé, but little more in terms of comfort. Her kids had to shower at school, because the trailer had no running water.
Hearing of the family’s hardship, a group of residents in Valleyford sent them to a hotel for two weeks. When they came home, three days before Christmas, it was to a new mobile home, purchased for her by her neighbors, who’d also filled it with furnishings. They’d put up a Christmas tree and placed games and gift cards under it. They’d bought her a Crock-Pot; it was bubbling with stew. Her neighbors had laid a new foundation and dug a new well.
“When we moved in we had a washer and dryer,” Atkinson said. “We all had new clothes. We all got new beds. We all got showers.”
Also, Atkinson said, she got inspired. The gift “kicked me into high gear. The amount of generosity I experienced that year opened my eyes to a new world.”
She volunteered to work at the Christmas Bureau. Now she serves as the bureau’s line supervisor. She oversees a team of volunteers who answer questions and do a lot of listening, too, as recipients wait – for hours, in the cold, children in tow – to receive gifts.
She resolves disagreements – serving as referee when there’s been an accusation of cutting, for example – and helps people make sure they have the required ID.
Judy Lee, the Christmas Bureau coordinator, described Atkinson as a “lifesaver.”
“Her heart is so much in the bureau, and she knows where recipients are coming from, because she’s been there,” Lee said.
Atkinson’s fiancé told her, she said, “ ‘Your special gift is to be mean and still be caring.’ ”
The job boils down, she said, to helping people “follow the rules, but still feel like they belong there.”
‘Sick until they find a cure’
Atkinson hesitates to share that she has cancer. It gives people the wrong idea.
“I can do whatever I want,” she said. “I’m fine. I am not a fan of having people pity me.”
In fact, she has been surviving cancer since she was 9, when she was diagnosed with a form of childhood leukemia. She has a tumor on the back of her brain.
Her own cancer helps compel her fundraising, however, as part of a four-woman belly-dance troupe called Enchanted. Based in the Tri-Cities, the group performs to raise money for cancer research.
She uses her roles as dancer and sometime-emcee to demonstrate that, thanks to research, people with cancer can thrive.
“We want to live,” she said. “We want to live 100 percent whole-heartedly.”
When Atkinson speaks to audiences, they listen, said troupe member Theresa Hayden. Atkinson explains that it’s thanks to cancer research that she’s made it this far, that she’s able to be there, talking to them and performing.
“She never gives up, never,” said Hayden, 47, who teaches Braille in the Richland School District. “She’s always said to me, ‘I’m just sick until they find a cure.’ ”
The tumor is still there. But since early September, when Atkinson and her doctors stumbled upon a recently approved treatment meant for skin cancer, the formerly softball-size growth has shrunk by more than half.
Now she’s looking ahead to long days of solid work at the Christmas Bureau, which will open Dec. 9 and run for 10 days. Organizers expect a lot of need.
Atkinson is excited. Being a co-chairwoman gives her the chance to learn more about the bureau’s inner workings.
“It truly makes me feel good all year long to be a part of it, to see the amount of people we help with one charity,” she said.