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Monday, March 30, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Christmas Bureau volunteers work year-round to find best toys

Fern Swecker, pictured here in 2014, sorts teddy bears donated by fans at the Spokane Chiefs hockey game. The Chiefs have carried on the tradition for 18 years, while Swecker has been with the Christmas Bureau for 22. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Fern Swecker, pictured here in 2014, sorts teddy bears donated by fans at the Spokane Chiefs hockey game. The Chiefs have carried on the tradition for 18 years, while Swecker has been with the Christmas Bureau for 22. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Chelsea Bannach Correspondent

They’re making their list and they’re checking it over and over again.

As the opening of the Christmas Bureau draws near, volunteers are gearing up to hand out toys to thousands of children who might not otherwise get anything under the tree.

Bureau volunteer Cheryl Taam, a toy buyer, said while “there’s just something about knowing that these children will actually have a Christmas,” the toys are not only for the kids.

“I do it for the parents,” Taam said. “It’s just such a struggle for so many. It’s just one little burden eased.”

The Christmas Bureau has provided assistance to those in need during the holiday season since 1945. With funds donated by community members, the program provides grocery store gift certificates, books and toys to low-income individuals and families.

Last year, the Bureau provided new books and toys for 14,683 children.

The Bureau runs Thursday through Dec. 17, but the effort to purchase the toys that are handed out actually starts much earlier – as early as January.

“It’s a year-around volunteer effort,” Taam said. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s a lot more work than people think.”

That’s because toy buyers have to submit orders to suppliers in order to get the best deals on quality toys, rather than simply visiting a big-box store and purchasing at retail cost. That way, they can ensure donor dollars stretch as far as possible so more children experience the joy of unwrapping a new present.

Donations to The Spokesman-Review’s Christmas Fund make it possible. Those donations ultimately are handed off to Catholic Charities Spokane and Volunteers of America, which operate the Bureau.

Volunteer Reesie Smith, also a toy buyer, said they’ve seen the cost of toys go up drastically over the years.

“It’s been harder and harder as the years go on because of the cost increase,” Smith said.

Nevertheless, toy buyers are dedicated to finding high-quality toys. They scour product reviews throughout the year, watch YouTube videos to see the toys in action and strive to only buy toys that last and are safe.

“It’s not a dollar-store gift,” Taam said. “It’s a decent gift. If this is the only gift they’re getting under there, we want to make sure it’s a good one.”

They also have to ensure they purchase enough toys for every age group, and for a variety of interests. Smith maintains a spreadsheet to guarantee they have enough toys for each category.

Before the Bureau opens, the toys are delivered to the Spokane Fair and Expo Center, where the Bureau is held. Toy volunteers do inventory, put batteries in all toys that require them, and then create aisles and set up the toys by age and interest category so parents can easily shop.

“We normally can’t sleep before the event,” Taam said. “These toys, it’s like opening up Christmas gifts for us. Sometimes it’s hard because we want to play.”

During the Bureau, volunteers keep busy filling back stock. They keep track of which toys are flying off the shelves and which ones don’t seem as popular, and they factor that in when buying for the next year.

Some toys are classics they buy year after year, though – Barbie dolls, cars and trucks, and board games, for example. For teens – the most difficult group to buy for – they might have bath and body items, or electronics. For babies, walkers and play gyms are popular.

Smith and Taam said organizers are proud that parents pick which toy they give to their child.

“I just love that they get to choose,” Taam said. “They’re the best person to choose.”

The level of need in Spokane is huge, but Smith said she’s amazed at what the community does year after year to help make the holidays happier for those less fortunate who visit the Bureau.

“It’s actually astonishing,” Smith said. “I don’t think there’s another community in Washington that does that.”

For the volunteers like Taam and Smith that serve at the Bureau each year, the goodwill flows both ways.

“The joy of giving is the greatest high you could ever get,” Taam said. “There is something about seeing the smiles and happiness on people’s faces. That’s the best gift I could think of getting for the holiday season.”

New donations

Mike and Ione Howson gave $300 via PayPal.

Richard and Lucille Hallett gave $165.

Allyson Porterfield and Noel Munk each gave $100 via PayPal.

An anonymous donor gave $100, writing, “Please accept this gift to help others in need for a happier Christmas. We are giving this gift in memory of our parents and our son. Thank you for all of your good work.”

Beverly Hayes, of Nine Mile Falls, gave $100, writing, “Thanks for all the good you do.”

Joseph Toombs Jr., of Spokane Valley, gave $100 in memory of Lois Toombs.

For donations made through PayPal, The Spokesman-Review contributed the processing fee.

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