After growing up in Spokane and reading about the Christmas Bureau for years, I thought I understood the essence of the charity. I was wrong. It’s one of those things you have to see for yourself.
Rob McCann, executive director of Catholic Charities, says I’m not alone. When people visit the bureau to take a tour or volunteer for the first time, he hears the same phrase over and over.
“I had no idea.”
McCann listed some of the epiphanies he’s heard tacked onto that phrase.
“I had no idea there were this many people who needed help.”
“I had no idea that you were doing this for so many years.”
“I had no idea that you gave them these wonderful toys and vouchers.”
“I had no idea that someone could live on $420 a month.”
“A single mom with six kids is living in her car; I had no idea.”
Last year, when I visited the bureau for the first time, I had no idea those warehouse doors open like a gift of Christmas spirit, cheering everyone who steps inside, the way a fire on a frigid day fills a room with warmth.
I wish all of Spokane could meet just one of the parents I’ve talked with in line at the Christmas Bureau.
I wish they could see the tears of gratitude and the need.
I wish they could see how parents swallow their pride so their children can wake up on Christmas morning with a gift to open.
You have to see it to understand. That’s why McCann has a challenge for Spokane.
“I would put a challenge out there to the entire community. If you’re in a position where you could donate and you’ve never been to the bureau, I challenge you to come this year and I will personally give you a tour,” he said. “I would love it if my phone rang off the hook. People need to see the reality of poverty in Spokane. You will not get a better snapshot.”
Each day at the bureau I met parents who stood in line for hours for the chance to pick out a book and toy for each child or get a $15 to $30 food voucher. As I listened to their stories of hardship and hope and watched the volunteers give them the gift of dignity and respect, I experienced a Spokane tradition that’s worth protecting and stoking.
But this week I’ve worried. After a sluggish week of fundraising, the Friday mail arrived with only $40 for the bureau. By noon, online and in-person donations had bumped contributions to just under $525, an amount that’ll be reported Tuesday, since it takes time to process the gifts.
That sum is the smallest daily tally the charity has seen in years. By comparison, last year the lowest day brought in $3,501.25.
I’m hopeful Monday’s mail brings better news.
Going through the donation mail is one of the perks of this job. I get to read the cards, letters and notes people send with sentiments of good will, remembrance and gratitude. I get to see every donor name, representing every town and neighborhood in our area and quite a few distant cities.
Those bundled envelopes, held together by rubber bands, will pile up on my desk. They’re a symbol of this season in Spokane, a community that cares. These donations are the stacked wood that fuels the Christmas Bureau.
They come from people who have an idea of what the bureau has been doing for 68 years, and they’re tending the fire.
For those who’ve wondered if this fire is worth feeding, take McCann’s challenge and come warm your hands and hearts at the bureau when it opens this week.
“People need to see what we’re doing. They’ll instantly fall in love,” he promised. “That’s how sure I am that people will be moved to help. I’m sure they’ll become a donor the same day … That phrase, ‘I had no idea,’ is what changes people’s hearts and minds. They can’t live the same way they used to live now that they have an idea.”
SCAFCO, of Spokane, donated $5,000. “SCAFCO and its employees are happy to donate to this worthy cause during the holiday season and share with others,” they wrote.
An anonymous Spokane donor gave $209.
Wayne Bass and Kay Sharp, of Liberty Lake, gave $200 “in memory of those unable to share the holiday with us this year.”
An anonymous Spokane donor gave $200, as did Harvey and Dorothy Lochhead, of Spokane, who gave “in memory of our niece, Sherri Mercer, and our nephew, Mark Dimond. They are missed.”
The Colbert Quilt Charmers also gave $200.
Mike Howson, of Spokane, gave $193.90 via PayPal.
Margaret Miller, of Spokane, gave $191 in memory of her parents, Dan and Rita.
Larry and Diana Helmer, of Colbert, gave $100. “We give this gift in memory of Bill Branom who truly had the spirit of giving,” they wrote. “Thank you for helping those who need it most.”
Blaine Krebs, of Mead, gave $100.
Spokane donors giving $100 include Keith and Sara Gehr, Richard and Carol Hawley, Dr. and Mrs. Otto Stevens, and Sheila and Karen MacDonald.
Tom and Sue Eastman, of Spokane Valley, gave $100 “in honor of our seven beautiful grandchildren.”
Betty Snowden, of Nine Mile Falls, gave $96.80 via PayPal.
Thomas Caswell, of Spokane, gave $75.
Ted and Louise Otto, of Cheney, gave $50, as did Sandra and Kenneth Goodner, of Four Lakes.
Rovella Vawter, of Spokane, gave $50. “Thank you for doing this Christmas drive for all the needy. May they all have a wonderful Christmas,” she wrote. “The toys will light up their day.”
Virginia Czechowski, of Spokane, gave $50 “to each and every one, in memory of Ted Czechowski.”
Mr. and Mrs. Ernst Pickel, of Spokane, gave $30.
Greg and Illa Jean Swanson, of Spokane Valley, gave $25.
William and Loralee Silverthorne, of Spokane, gave $20.
Elle, of Spokane, gave $20 in honor of a daughter’s birthday on Dec. 11.
Mr. Alfred Ungaro, of Spokane, gave $15, as did Marjorie Sporn, of Spokane Valley.
D.H. Edwards and Ruth Mae Haas, both of Spokane Valley, each gave $10.