In 2001, Christy Folkins saw an ad in the paper recruiting volunteers for the Christmas Bureau. She remembered reading about the bureau as a child and getting engrossed in stories about people who donated because they appreciated their good fortune and wanted to help less fortunate families have a merry Christmas.
At the volunteer meeting, Folkins was hooked. “I wanted to be involved with something that makes people feel good,” she said.
She’s volunteered ever since, coming back each year because “it puts your head in the place it should be for Christmas and what’s really important for Christmas,” she said. “It puts you so in the state of mind that all of us should be for Christmas and appreciating how blessed we are. Even in hardship it’s the people in our life that make the difference. It isn’t the things.”
This is underscored, Folkins said, by the gratitude expressed by the people using the bureau.
“When people are needy, it’s hard to ask for help,” she explained. “I marvel at how good people feel when they leave, the smiles they get. There is really a heartfelt connection between the people who work at the bureau and the recipients. It’s a heart-string puller.”
The Christmas Bureau, organized by Catholic Charities and the Volunteers of America in partnership with The Spokesman-Review, distributes toys, books and grocery vouchers to adults and children in need. It’s funded by reader donations and needs to raise $525,000 this season so it can serve about 35,000 low-income recipients of all ages.
While the Christmas Bureau wouldn’t be possible without generous donations, its lifeblood is the efforts of volunteers like Folkins. This year organizers expect nearly 400 volunteers to staff the nine-day event, which runs Dec. 12 through 21, excluding Dec. 16.
“We depend on volunteers because if we had to pay people to do these jobs we’d have less money for the toys and the vouchers and the books,” said Christmas Bureau coordinator Judy Lee.
“Volunteers are vital to the Christmas Bureau because it’s a large event, and we see thousands of people on our busiest days,” she continued. “In order for it to run smoothly we want it to be an event where people are not just receiving assistance but where it’s a holiday experience at the same time. We want people to feel good while we’re there.”
Ann Marie Byrd, development director for Catholic Charities, said Folkins epitomizes that Christmas spirit. “She effuses joy and compassion,” Byrd said.
“She sees the real meaning of what it’s all about for the people we serve,” Lee said. “She is not only our co-chair, she is our cheerleader. … She moves around the Christmas Bureau and interacts so beautifully with everyone who comes. If there’s a minor issue she knows how to step in and work things out, whether that’s a crying child or someone who isn’t fluent in English. … She’s like a symbol herself of the Christmas spirit.”
For Folkins, those interactions bring joy, though it’s sometimes difficult. “The thing that gets me the most is when you see the pain in a parent’s eyes of not being able to provide a bunch of gifts for their kids,” Folkins said. “Anything positive that you say to them gives them hope.”
She also enjoys the interaction with the other volunteers.
“It’s really a family there. It’s amazing,” Folkins said.
Other than her first year, when she volunteered three days, she’s given her time for the entire run of the bureau.
“That first year when I wasn’t there I really missed it, what was going on, how much money we raised that day. I missed the stories, interacting with the people that come to the bureau. And I know a lot of people feel that way,” she said.
Along with providing help for everything from setup to tear-down, the 100 volunteers who show up at the bureau each day also enable the charity to have impressive financial efficiency. About 96 percent of funds raised through the seasonal donation drive go directly toward the purchase of toys, books and food vouchers for families in need.
It’s an experience that permeates their own Christmas traditions, say volunteers, many of whom come back year after year.
“These volunteers do it because they want to do it, not because they are getting paid,” Lee said. “They truly enjoy interacting with everyone there. … The volunteers get a lot of reward with just talking to the people and interacting.”
The following donations were received in the first quarter of 2012. The rest of funds received through Thanksgiving will be reported in Tuesday’s paper.
Premera Blue Cross donated $5,000, writing, “Our company’s charitable contribution decisions are made by a committee of employees who also are active in community events.”
Charlie and Kathy at Inland Northwest Community Foundation gave a grant of $1,500: “We love being part of the Spokane community and are proud to help The Bureau make this Christmas merrier for those in need.”
The Clarence Colby Memorial Fund donated $1,115.05, and Volunteers of America gave $1,084.
David and Melody Coombs and family gave $1,000, including a note: “Thanks for all you do to make so many families happy at Christmas.”
NAI Black donated $1,000. “Thank you for your continued efforts to touch so many lives in our community – at Christmas time and throughout the year,” the company wrote.
An anonymous donor from Newman Lake gave $250.
Dick Schmidt, of Schmidt Farms, donated $200, writing, “So that others may enjoy some of the bounty this great land so amply provides!”
The Barbara Augusta Gift Fund at Charles Schwab Charitable Fund also donated $200.
One of last year’s volunteers gave $100 anonymously, writing, “I volunteer at the Fairgrounds during the days the families come for their gifts – it is so rewarding. Thanks to such a great organizing team.”
Mr. & Mrs. Robert Arnold, John & Shirley Riley, Nancy Mahoney, Mark Houston and Melvin Murphy each donated $100.
The Mediation Center of Spokane also gave $100.
Elaine Myers donated $100 in honor of her cousins Bell and Ruthie Wieber, of Portland.
Janelle Lile gave $53.10 on behalf of Lola Lile.
Wilma Vail and William Morse each gave $50.
Gail Gallaher donated $40 in lieu of her parents’ Christmas gifts last year.