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Christmas Bureau volunteer knows struggle firsthand

For single mom Jennifer Oliver, volunteering at the Christmas Bureau is a way to help others. She understands how hard the holidays can be on a low income.

Oliver has four children, ages 9 to 14. Because her son has a disability that requires constant adult supervision, working isn’t an option. The family of five makes do on food stamps and a $710 monthly disability check, not nearly enough to buy presents for Christmas.

“They wouldn’t have anything if it wasn’t for the Christmas Bureau,” she said. “I just wanted to give something back.”

The Christmas Bureau, organized by The Spokesman-Review, Catholic Charities and Volunteers of America, distributes toys, books and food vouchers so needy families like Oliver’s can have a merry Christmas. It’s funded by donations and needs to raise $525,000 this holiday season.

In 2012, the Christmas Bureau served 32,060 people in nine days, giving out toys for 16,124 children and grocery store vouchers for 9,877 households. While those numbers are a staggering snapshot of poverty in Spokane, the numbers were lower than expected.

In 2011, the charity served 35,561 people, 17,321 of them children.

“Last year, we saw a few less people and we thought that was a good thing,” said Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities. “We’re prayerfully hopeful that maybe people are clawing their way out of poverty and getting more self-sufficient and as a result, didn’t need to go back to the bureau. That’s OK with us. That’s our goal at the end of the day.”

McCann noted he’s seen a slight uptick in volunteerism and philanthropy this year at Catholic Charities, something organizers hope to see repeated with the Christmas Bureau as more people become financially stable and able to help those less fortunate.

“During the recession, people went into the bunker,” he said. “They’re starting to get out and get back involved in terms of support and volunteering. Those are both good things. When it comes to the economy, I’m cautiously optimistic. A little increase in philanthropy is a good sign.”

At the bureau, philanthropy goes a long way, with 96 percent of the money raised going directly to toys, books and food vouchers to help families like Oliver’s.

“My kids get up and tear into everything,” Oliver said. “I like getting to pick the gift. I know what they like and so I can pick out something I know they’re going to enjoy.”

Her 9-year-old daughter, Dalia, for example, is hoping for a remote-control helicopter, something she’d be unlikely to receive if given a gift based on age and gender alone.

“She’s my tomboy,” said Oliver, describing how her daughter also loves sports, especially playing linebacker and defensive tackle in football.

Whether she selects an RC toy, something sporty or a gift to match another interest, Oliver is grateful for the gifts she can put under the tree, thanks to Christmas Bureau donors.

“It just lights up my kids faces that they get something that they’re really going to like and enjoy,” Oliver said. “They usually open it and play with it right there. It’s nice to see them on Christmas morning be happy.”


Some Christmas Bureau donors send money during the year, giving the holiday fundraising effort a boost at the beginning.

Northwest Farm Credit Services, of Spokane, gave $5,000.

The Clarence Colby Memorial Fund donated $3,031.

Carolyn Clark, of Spokane, gave a gift of stock shares, which Volunteers of America sold for $1,019.52.

Dave Ulmen, of Spokane, gave $509.47 via PayPal.

An anonymous Spokane donor gave $400, the total of three birthday checks. “For birthday charity this year, my friends are honoring me through the Christmas Bureau. It is my pleasure to send the check to you,” the donor wrote.

The Barbara Augusta Gift Fund donated $200, with the note, “Thank you for the good work done by your organization. It is a pleasure to support your programs.”

Carol Christianson gave $100, as did Melvin and Sheilah Murphy, and Michael and Carol Lynn, all of Spokane.

Kathleen Ossello, of Spokane, gave $96.80 via PayPal in honor of Kathleen Lackie’s birthday.

Judith Horton, of Coeur d’Alene, gave $5 monthly, totaling $50 for the book room.

Mike Yake, of Spokane, gave $50, as did Paul Swinehart, of Tacoma.

Colleen Connors, of Spokane, gave $48.25 via PayPal.

C. Caler, of Seven Bays, Wash., gave $5.54.