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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Family makes a tradition of helping others at Christmas Bureau

Theresa Utesch poses with her son Matt and daughter Jamie on Friday. The family has volunteered at the Christmas Bureau for 12 years. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Theresa Utesch poses with her son Matt and daughter Jamie on Friday. The family has volunteered at the Christmas Bureau for 12 years. (Tyler Tjomsland)

The first time Matt and Jamie Utesch volunteered at the Christmas Bureau with their mom, Theresa, they were teens working to meet the community service requirement for honor roll.

That experience touched them.

Twelve years later they’re still volunteering as a family, a Christmas tradition they continued through college and into adulthood.

“After the first year we did it, we made it a family thing every year,” said Matt Utesch, 25. “It’s a good cause. When you help someone going through the hard times, when you can tell it hasn’t been their best year, it feels really good to give them a helping hand.”

Now in its 69th year, the Christmas Bureau provides toys, books and $15 to $30 food vouchers for needy families, funded by donations and staffed by volunteers like the Utesch family. Last year it served 9,218 households. A similar number is expected this year.

Unlike charities that distribute gifts chosen by donors, the Christmas Bureau provides a shopping-type experience where families can select a book for each child through age 14 and an age-appropriate present for each child, including teens.

“I really like what the Christmas Bureau stands for. Children want to have presents to open up and parents want to give presents to their kids,” said Jamie Utesch, 27. “I always thought it was so cool to be able to help them pick out toys for their kids and have them give me a hug after it and say how grateful they were that we were here.

“They’d tell me how many kids they had, what they’re interested in and just how awesome this program is and how much they really do appreciate it,” she said. “That’s what I like to remember about the Christmas Bureau, giving back to the people that appreciate it.”

She recalled the times she played with the toys while volunteering, which helped her make recommendations to families looking for a gift their children would open with glee. “The toys that the Christmas Bureau provides are awesome,” she said.

From dolls and cars to MP3 players and sports equipment, the toy room at the Christmas Bureau is stocked with gifts that have been carefully chosen for quality, variety, popularity and price.

“It makes you feel good to be involved with something like that, knowing those toys are making children and families happy,” said Theresa Utesch. “I’ve had people get tears in their eyes over being able to get things for their kids. They’re trying to make ends meet. You’re putting things in the bag and they’re thanking you so many times because you’re the person helping them. But obviously they’re thanking the whole group.”

Those thanks are to the Spokane community. It takes more than 400 volunteers and thousands of donors to make the 10-day charity event happen. Organized by The Spokesman-Review, Catholic Charities and Volunteers of America, this year the Christmas Bureau is open Dec 10-19, excluding Dec. 14. It will be stocked with enough gifts and books for more than 15,000 children.

To pay for those gifts, between now and Christmas the charity needs to raise $525,000. About 96 percent of the money raised goes directly to fund the toys, books and vouchers because volunteers and in-kind donations help keep costs low.

Last year, the average reported monthly household income of the recipients was $1,168. Matt Utesch said when he read that, he was blown away.

“That number really hit home for me, just thinking about what my paycheck is. I can’t even fathom how they would support a family with that amount of money,” he said.

“It makes you appreciate what you have,” said Theresa Utesch. “It’s not so important what you get as what you give. We try to donate to the Christmas Bureau too, because we see the good it produces.”

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