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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

No peeking parents: At Santa Express, kids learn the value of giving and helping others

Ashley Amado, left, and Matt Cotter, right, help youngster Bettie Hanson, 9, wrap gifts she chose for her family on Wednesday at Santa Express in the Crescent Building, next door to Starbucks at 707 W. Main Ave. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Elves are OK. Children, too. But parents are expressly not allowed.

It says so right on the sign out front: “No Peeking Parents Until Christmas.”

The blinds are drawn.

This secret shopping center in downtown for Spokane is for the littlest of Santas, children from 4 to 12 who are still learning to give, still learning what fuels the spirit of season and the meaning behind the old axiom “It’s better to give than to receive.”

To give to Dad, there are can sleeves, lightweight tools and fishing- and hunting-themed knickknacks. For Mom, there are ornaments, earrings, necklaces, scarves, coin purses, candles and potholders.

“Most things that are good for Mom are good for Grandma, too,” said 32-year-old Jennifer Smith, one of the elves who volunteers to guide young people through the shopping experience. “The variety this year in this shop is top-notch.”

This shop is Santa Express, an annual holiday pop-up that benefits the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery. Since it started in 1992, the just-for-kids retail outlet has raised more than $1 million for the nursery, which provides 24-hour emergency care for children up to 6 years old.

It’s also become a holiday tradition for many local families.

“This is our third year, I think,” said 52-year-old Debbie Clawson, who brought her grandchildren to the shop last week. “They love it. It’s fun for them to shop and know their limits. It gives them experience. It teaches them giving.”

Weekends are busiest. And they become even busier the closer it gets to Christmas. There’s lots of activity weeknights, too, from about 5 to 7 p.m., when many parents or guardians are getting off work.

No matter how busy it gets at Santa Express, Smith said, “You want it to be a good experience for the kids.”

Volunteers needed

The shop is run by the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery Auxiliary with help from a small army of volunteers.

And, “We’re always looking for more,” said Gina Mosey, a member of the auxiliary board who’s been volunteering at Santa Express for eight years “to give back. I took my children shopping here when they were young and when it was at NorthTown Mall.”

Now, her children are 38, 36 and 34. And the monthlong holiday shop has been hosted in several locations.

This year, it’s in a new spot. Through Dec. 23, little shoppers and their adults can find Santa Express in donated space on the main level of the historic Crescent Building at Main Avenue and Wall Street in downtown Spokane.

Mosey was working as the retail manager early last week. But the most fun volunteer job, she said, is serving as an elf.

Wednesday afternoon, there were five elves on shift. But during peak hours, up to two dozen elves might be helping children shop for and wrap gifts. Groups of medical clinic, bank and other employees have volunteered. So have members of high school and college student clubs and church youth groups.

Elves dress for the job in green or red aprons and hats. They’re also armed with green or red clipboards that carry a gift list and budget.

Elves accompanying children up and down the aisles keep kids on track and remind them who they’re shopping for: Grandma, Grandpa, Sister, Brother – not themselves.

“Usually, I’ll ask, ‘What does Grandma like? What does Grandpa like? Does Grandma like necklaces?’ You kind of talk them through it,” Smith said. “With the younger ones, you guide a little bit more.”

Just for kids

There are visual cues, too. Small, circular signs on sticks remind shoppers of intended recipients – Mom, Dad – and list prices items on particular tables. At Santa Express, all gifts are priced from 50 cents to $8. Parents or guardians set spending limits at the outset of the experience, which includes custom gift wrapping.

Children get to wrap their own gifts – with elf help, if needed – in one of the two gift wrapping rooms in Vanessa’s Village, just down the hall from the children’s shopping area.

“There’s a lot of ribbon,” Smith said. “We’ve been curling all the ribbons and sharpening all the crayons.”

Just like at Santa Express, no parents or guardians are allowed in the wrapping rooms. A sign declares: “Wrapping Area for Kids and Elves Only.” The aim is to keep presents a secret until Christmas. But sometimes little shoppers can’t contain themselves.

“It’s hard for them to keep it secret,” Smith said. “Sometimes, they get so excited about it, they scream, ‘Mommy, I got you a coffee mug!’ I’ve seen that before. It’s really cute.”

A corporate tax accountant, Smith has volunteered at Santa Express since 2008, the same year her oldest son was born. She has two, ages 8 and 6. And she plans to bring both of them shopping here one weekend before Christmas.

“It helps them understand a little more about giving and not just receiving,” she said. “As a parent, that’s something I like. It gets your kids thinking about the season a little differently maybe.”

That’s not the only reason she’s involved with Santa Express. “A lot of it is just being a mom and knowing what the nursery does and wanting to help,” said Smith, who hasn’t used the facility herself. “But I see it as something so valuable for our community.”

Vanessa Behan

The crisis nursery opened in 1987, five years after Vanessa Behan’s death. A blow to the 2-year-old’s stomach ruptured her intestines. She died Jan. 9, 1982.

An autopsy revealed previous injuries: a fractured skull, a broken wrist, cigarette burns. Both Vanessa’s stepfather and mother were implicated in the toddler’s death but never convicted of killing her.

A group of community members was so outraged it raised money to build the crisis nursery in Vanessa’s memory and in the hope of preventing similar tragedies. Since then, the facility has served as a safe haven for more than 90,000 children.

Located in the South Perry neighborhood, the organization offers free, 24-hour child care for up to three days at a time as well as parenting classes, crisis counseling, referrals and basic necessities such as diapers, baby wipes, food and formula.

Volunteering at Santa Express to help raise money for Vanessa Behan “is something that puts me in the holiday spirit,” Smith said. “It’s something very near and dear to my heart.

“We get a lot of people who come and shop who have used the nursery before and want to give something back.”

Lots of distractions

Visits last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes – or more. Some little shoppers take longer than others.

“It depends on who they’re shopping for and their age,” Smith said. “If they’re shopping for a lot of people, it takes longer.”

There are lots of distractions.

“Look how big this diamond is!” exclaimed Kaitlyn Hunter, 6. She and her brother, Kayden Hunter, 7, were shopping for Clawson, their grandmother, while she waited down the hall. Each had a budget of $5.

The large pink plastic jewel was $7 and out of her price range.

“This whole table is going to be too much,” said elf Aliza Seay, 38, directing Kaitlyn to more affordable items. “Does Grandma like candles? What kinds of stuff does Grandma like? Does Grandma like butterflies? What’s your grandma’s favorite color?”

This was the siblings’ second trip of the season. They’d already shopped for uncles, aunts and each other on a previous visit. Still, they had lots of questions for their personal shoppers.

“Are these real crayons?” (“Nope. That’s Chapstick.”) “Are these real shark teeth? (“I think they are real shark teeth.”) “What are those?” (“Hand sanitizers.”)

Kayden picked up a toy boat in the $4 Dad area, then handled a couple of yo-yos, a miniature flashlight on a chain, and small truck.

“Are those trucks for your grandma?” his elf asked.

This is 22-year-old Sarah Gaither’s first year volunteering at Santa Express. Her second shift of the season started out slowly. Nearly two hours went by that weekday morning without any pint-size shoppers.

“I didn’t realize how happy it would make me until that first kid got here,” she said. “It picked up my whole day. It made me smile really big.”

Things can get interesting when siblings show up to shop together. “You have to steer clear of each other if they’re shopping for each other,” Smith said.

Kids keep the elves on their toes in other ways, too.

“Grandma said he can get me a something little,” Kaitlyn, talking about her brother, told her elf.

Seay was undeterred. “We have to follow Grandma’s instructions to get her a gift,” she said. “You want to go talk to Grandma about that?”

After a quick consultation with Grandma, Kaitlyn and her elf returned to Santa Express and continue shopping – for Grandma.

Vanessa’s Village

Parents or guardians of young shoppers are expected to stay close by. Volunteers stress Santa Express isn’t a day care or drop-off child care situation. Folding chairs are provided. Or, adults can shop, too.

Vanessa’s Village, a sister store to Santa Express, welcomes shoppers of all ages.

“The concept is while the kids are shopping, the parents can be shopping,” said Denise Garceau, the volunteer who does all of the displays, restocking and pricing. The idea, she said, is to keep prices low.

There’s much to choose from this season, thanks to a donation from Deannie Franz, owner of the old Gramma Deannie’s Gifts and Goodies in Colville. When she closed her gift shop in mid-June, she donated leftover merchandise to the nonprofit.

Vanessa’s Village is chock full of handmade hats, quilts and potholders, all donated by the women who make them. Look, also, for Christmas ornaments and décor, gift wrap, scented candles, wine and martini glasses, stuffed animals, board games, jewelry, gloves, scarves, socks and sports team fan gear, including lots of Seahawks stuff.

Plus, Garceau said, “We try to hit all of the schools as best we can.”

There’s an entire room dedicated to baby things: clothes, rattles, booties. Another room, known as “The Attic,” features all kinds of miscellany – from Easter and Halloween decorations to country western-themed knickknacks and “just kind of random stuff.”

It took volunteers about three weeks to set up shop.

What doesn’t sell, Garceau said, “we pack up and save for next year. But I hope most of it sells. It’s all about the nursery, what we do.

“Not only does it provide a shopping experience for the kids so they learn to give, but it educates the parents about the nursery and what’s available.”

This is her second year volunteering at the holiday pop-up, but she’s been involved with the nursery “since its inception because of the kids who are so vulnerable,” she said. “Their family situation makes their lives harder than they should be.”

‘The elves, they help you’

Santa Express and Vanessa’s Village accepts cash, checks and debit or credit cards. Sometimes, parents pay. And, sometimes, children use their allowance or birthday money, emptying their piggy banks to shop for others. They learn, Gaither said, not only about the spirit of giving but budgeting and the value of money.

“They get the full gift-giving experience,” she said

Even the children who are shy at first, Smith said, “will kind of come out of their shells.”

Fourth-grader Bettie Hanson, 9, was quiet when her stepmother handed her two $20 bills and encouraged her to “have fun.”

Bettie had a long list: Dad, Mom, Stepmom, Brother, Sister, Grandma.

Accompanied by elves Ashley Amado, 17, and Matt Cotter, 17 – both National Honor Society members from Lewis and Clark High School – she selected items for each one, then got to work decorating gift bags.

“It was fun,” she said. “It was easy. The elves, they help you, and you get presents for your family. It’s cheaper than the store because at the store things are like $20 or $30.”

Her plan was to put the gifts under the tree when she got home – and not tell anyone what’s inside them.

Her stepmother, Diana Campbell, 53, had learned about Santa Express from Bettie, who had visited the shop once before a couple of years ago.

“I’m glad I brought her,” Campbell said. “I think it’s a great program. It teaches kids about math and how much money to spend on each person. I think it also teaches kids to get outside themselves, to be less selfish.

“And, it teaches them how to keep a secret.”