For many of Spokane’s low-income families, Christmas shopping doesn’t begin on Black Friday. It begins Dec. 12, when the Christmas Bureau opens at the fairgrounds.
Needy recipients will come from all over, riding the bus, walking, driving or getting a ride with a friend. Like Black Friday shoppers, some will wait in line for hours before the sun rises, just to get one quality gift and book for each of their children and a grocery store voucher for Christmas dinner.
Last year 35,561 adults and children came for assistance, a staggering number of people who struggle to put gifts under the tree or a festive meal on the table. Their average monthly household income was $1,041.59.
“It hits you like a brick wall,” said Robb McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities, which organizes the event in collaboration with Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review. McCann noted that each recipient has a heart-tugging story. Dad may have just gotten out of jail. Mom may have been served an eviction notice that morning. Families might go home to a house without heat or power. The kitchen cupboards might be bare.
“We’re trying to blunt that trauma as much as we can. They face incredible struggles even as they are at the Bureau,” he said. “The crisis is there all year but it feels worse at Christmas because it’s not supposed to be like this. … This is a place for people to come and get a little of that Christmas spirit.”
The charity event, which has run annually for 67 years, wouldn’t be possible without the support of the entire community.
From Thanksgiving through Christmas, Spokesman-Review readers give what they can to make the holidays a bit brighter for families in need. This year’s fundraising goal is $525,000. About 96 percent of the money raised goes toward toys, books and food vouchers. The rest covers overhead expenses.
In prior years, donations have come from piggy banks and endowments, from families and businesses. No matter the amount, each donation is recognized in the paper, a thanks on behalf of the organizers for showing the spirit of Christmas and making the Christmas Bureau possible for so many less-fortunate families.
“The community comes together to pay for this event so visibly,” said Ann Marie Byrd, Catholic Charities development director. Spokane also gives through its volunteers. This year almost 400 people will volunteer their time to help keep bureau costs low and the holiday happiness high.
Last year the bureau met its goal, also $525,000, and was able to serve 35,561 people in 10 days, giving out 17,321 toys for needy children and 11,129 grocery store vouchers. Vouchers range from $15 to $30 depending on household size. Similar numbers are expected at the event this year, which runs Dec 12 through Dec. 21, excluding Dec. 16.
While the Bureau doesn’t verify income, it’s clear to organizers that the people served appreciate the help for the holidays. They are constantly thanked by grateful recipients, many of whom are embarrassed they need to use the Bureau.
“Recipients are fragile, vulnerable,” McCann said. “Many have no way to get Christmas presents for their kids.”
Volunteer Randy Olson recalled one such recipient his wife, Sally, met while volunteering in the computer area, giving out grocery vouchers.
“A young mother sat at her computer and (Sally) issued a voucher for her Christmas dinner and she gave it back!” he wrote in an email.
When his wife explained that the voucher was for Christmas dinner, the woman said she’d already gotten help from another organization and “wanted us to give this to another needy family. All she was hoping for were toys for her children … this was the real Christmas spirit alive and well in this young woman,” he wrote.
Stories like this, as individual as snowflakes, accumulate into an experience that touches each person involved with the Christmas Bureau, from the generous donors and volunteers to the families they are helping.
“In our hearts we know that this is the right thing to do and it always makes a ‘true’ Christmas for us,” Olson wrote. People kid him about being Santa Claus, since he works in the toy room and has white hair and a bit of a belly.
“Not only can we see the smiles on the children’s and parents’ faces, but we feel like we’re helping the heart of our community.”