For the first time, Jessica Rising can read her children’s Christmas lists without a heavy heart. She knows she finally has the means to make some of their holiday hopes come true. But she’s grateful. In prior years, Rising relied on the Christmas Bureau, rounded out with dollar-store gifts, to put presents under the tree on Christmas morning.
As thanks, she’s volunteering at the bureau during its nine-day run at the fairgrounds.
“I always told myself I’ll be a volunteer here someday, on the other side of the counter,” Rising said. “This is a personal victory for me and giving back to a group that helped give my children the Christmas they wanted.”
Founded in 1945, the Christmas Bureau is a philanthropic partnership among The Spokesman-Review, Volunteers of America and Catholic Charities. At the bureau, people in need select one toy for each of their children and receive one book for each child through age 14. Each household also receives a grocery voucher of $15 to $30, based on family size, so they can buy fixings for Christmas dinner.
The charity is funded by donations from Spokesman-Review readers between Thanksgiving and Christmas. It needs $525,000 to provide toys and books for more than 16,000 children and vouchers for almost 10,000 low-income households. About 96 percent of the money raised pays for the vouchers and toys, with only 4 percent going to overhead expenses, because it’s staffed by more than 400 volunteers.
When Rising first learned of the bureau she was a stay-at-home mom with three young children. Her husband was in the Army, then working a series of driving jobs. Money was always tight, with little left for Christmas.
They had two more children together before divorcing, and Rising faced Christmas shopping as a working single mom.
“We struggled but I knew how to deal with it,” she said. “The Christmas Bureau helped out a lot. I’d usually go in and get toys for the little ones. With the voucher I’d go to Fred Meyer and get presents for the teens. We patchworked it together to get the most important presents and I’d round it out with dollar-store gifts.”
Rising recalled the year her daughter Emily was 9 or 10 and asked for a microscope, shortly after they learned her IQ was genius level.
“We knew she was smart, but not that smart,” said Rising, adding that she really wanted to nurture her daughter’s intellectual curiosity. “She was asking for a microscope, so interested in the world. I had no idea how I was going to pull it off.”
Hoping, Rising priced microscopes but her heart sank when she saw the $40 price tag on the cheapest model. “They’re expensive. I could get presents for all of them at Walmart for the same price. I didn’t want to play favorites.”
Then she went to the Christmas Bureau, where parents can choose from quality toys, matching them to their child’s age and interests. It’s a distinction that sets the Christmas charity apart.
“To be able to pick out a present and make it happen for the kids is a huge ray of sunshine in a life that is otherwise very gray,” Rising said. “It isn’t some random Barbie. My girls weren’t into Barbie.”
Among the wide variety of gifts, Rising found the perfect present for Emily.
“They had a microscope. Even now I cry thinking of it,” she said. “I was so happy to get her what she wanted. Little things like that mean so much.”
Since then, Rising went back to school. She remarried in 2012 and earned a master’s degree in August. Now, as a composition teacher at ITT Technical Institute who writes novels on the side, she can finally afford Christmas.
“It’s so strange comparing prices. I’ve never done that before because I’ve never had a cash budget,” she said, noting that she’s looking forward to volunteering at the bureau with her daughter Cisily, 17, because they’re grateful for the holiday help they no longer need and want to give back.
Rising described the joy of listening to her children wake up on Christmas morning.
“I’d hear them scream and laugh and know it’s something that made their entire year,” she said, her voice catching. “I want to thank everyone who’s given to the bureau. I’m hoping and planning on volunteering for years to come.”