If volunteers serve as the heart of the Christmas Bureau, its computer network might serve as the brain.
And after undergoing some surgery, the network has emerged smarter and faster, bureau organizers say. That’s crucial to the charity’s operation – and to helping volunteers concentrate on treating recipients with compassion rather than struggling with their keyboards.
“Everything we do is designed to provide a positive experience for clients who come to the bureau, knowing it’s probably not their first choice,” said Hal Ellis, 76, of Spokane, who helps lead the bureau’s team of data-entry volunteers.
The bureau, paid for with donations to the newspaper’s Christmas Fund, gives children’s books, toys and grocery vouchers to people in need for Christmas. It begins Dec. 9 at the Spokane County fairgrounds.
The computer network is composed of a “hodgepodge” of donated equipment, bureau coordinator Judy Lee said – a server, about 15 computers and a few printers.
It works thanks largely to the efforts of volunteer Ben Wadden. Taking up the task about five years ago, Wadden wrote new software for the bureau and streamlined the network. He and some helpers started boxing together computers and printers that they knew worked together, rather than repeating an annual trial-and-error session. They added new cables.
They turned a system that had caused headaches for bureau organizers into one that’s “embarrassingly easy” to set up, Wadden said. He is a senior developer at InterTech Pro, which is donating his time and the time of a few colleagues to set up the network starting Monday.
Organizers planned today to process the bureau’s first set of grocery vouchers, about 350 to be distributed to homebound low-income people who can’t make it to the fairgrounds.
As the bureau evolves – organizers have added a separate computer station to serve people with disabilities, for example – Wadden and his helpers continue to tweak the system and ensure its operation.
Each person who visits the Christmas Bureau provides information including their address, their children’s ages and genders, and their household’s total income. That information is entered into computers by volunteers, which can be a “standoffish” experience for recipients who’ve already waited in line, sometimes for hours, to be served.
Better software on a stable network makes it easier for volunteers to do their job – which is to listen to recipients’ stories and treat them kindly while entering their data into a computer, Ellis said.
Wadden’s software also helps maintain the accuracy of the bureau’s records. And it lets coordinators track who has been served and anticipate who’ll seek help the following year – which helps them set fundraising goals and purchase the right number of toys for each age group.
The software also gives organizers information about recipients’ household incomes – in 2010, the average was $1,003 a month. It tells them where recipients live: While the bureau has no residency requirements, the vast majority of those served last year lived in Spokane County, although 49 of the 10,700 families served lived in North Idaho.
Because the software tracks recipients according to their addresses, which recipients must demonstrate using approved documentation, it also helps prevent anyone from using the charity more than once a year.
The names of donors to the Christmas Fund will be published daily in the newspaper until the fund closes at the end of the year. Donors who wish to remain anonymous should indicate their wishes in a note accompanying their gift.
The following donations to the Christmas Fund were among those received since the close of last year’s fund. They bring the fund to $26,511.96.
Stan and June Olson, of Spokane, gave $7,500.
The Spokesman-Review editorial department gave $1,041.50, money raised through its “freebie sale.”
The Kappa Chapter of Alpha Delta Kappa gave $1,000.
The Guy and Ruth Reed Memorial Fund at Inland Northwest Community Foundation gave $880.
Garco Construction gave $300.
The Bath & Body Works store at the Spokane Valley Mall gave $100.