Christmas Bureau coordinators and volunteers descended Tuesday on the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center to get ready to launch one of the region’s most beloved annual holiday events.
The room was filled with energy and a sense of purpose as 120 volunteers unloaded some 16,000 toys from freight trucks, carting them around and lifting them into towering stacks.
“It’s organized chaos,” said Judy Lee, special event coordinator with Catholic Charities Spokane.
Thankfully, many of the volunteers are seasoned Christmas Bureau veterans who know what they’re doing and make the massive undertaking appear seamless.
Catholic Charities Spokane and Volunteers of America organize the bureau, which serves low-income individuals and families. Donations to The Spokesman-Review Christmas Fund by community members pay for the bureau, which serves those in need during the holidays.
Students from Freeman High School were among the volunteers helping out Tuesday.
Pia Longinotti, an English teacher and National Honor Society adviser, said a student who was a bureau volunteer approached her with the idea years ago “and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
She said her students love to help make Christmas happier for many people. This year, 32 Freeman students volunteered to help set up the bureau.
“My kids have a great spirit of giving,” she said. “They just get the importance of giving back. If there’s a way to give back to the community, they’re in.”
Other groups helping out included Gonzaga Preparatory School, Providence Health Care, Ecova and Empire Health Foundation.
In between sorting the deliveries, volunteers took quick breaks to munch on donuts or warm up with a cup of coffee or cocoa in the lunchroom before continuing work to prepare for the bureau’s opening day Thursday. Luigi’s Italian Restaurant donated lunch for all the volunteers.
A huge part of setting up for the event – which served 27,410 individuals last year – is creating an efficient, streamlined process that will help recipients move with ease through the bureau, where they will receive new toys, books, and grocery store gift certificates.
Jim Custer Enterprises is one of many that help make that happen.
For the last 12 years, the company has been providing the piping, drapes and labor needed to section off the different areas of the bureau – critical to keeping order with the roughly 1,000 households per day that will visit.
“What they do helps so much because it helps with our logistics and flow, but it also makes the décor look great,” Lee said. “It looks like a Christmas party in here.”
Clint Branz and his wife, Cheryl Custer-Branz, are second-generation owners of Jim Custer Enterprises. After volunteering at the bureau for a few years, they began providing the labor and materials for the draping.
Before that, bureau organizers did the best they could with sheets, tarps and PVC pipes to build toy rooms and childcare and computer areas.
“We said, ‘I think there might be a better way if people are open to the idea,’ ” Branz said. “It’s so much more efficient. This is what we do for a living. We put on consumer shows, we put on events.”
They’re just one of the many organizations and individuals that come together each year to make the Christmas Bureau a big success.
Like others who give to the bureau, they’ve been inspired to come back every year after seeing the need in the community and wanting to do their part to help.
“We want everybody to feel good about the holidays,” Branz said.
An anonymous donor gave $10,000, writing, “Happy Holidays! Thank you to all of the volunteers that make this time of year so special for our whole community. Blessings to all.”
An anonymous donor gave $1,200, writing, “In memory of our loved ones. Thank you for all you do to make this holiday season brighter for those in need.”
Justin and Tamie Voelker, of Spokane Valley, gave $1,000, writing, “Thank you for all you do.” An anonymous donor also gave $1,000.
Doreen and Eugene Criswell, of Colbert, gave $500, writing, “In honor of our wonderful grandchildren, Nicole, Alyssa, Zack and Maisie. Please keep up the good work for those in need.”
Richard and Burma Williams, of Spokane, gave $500, writing, “Spokane has a number of fine charitable programs, and the Christmas Fund is one of the best! We are pleased to be a small part of it. Thanks to all the people at the Spokesman, at Catholic Charities, at Volunteers of America, and especially to all the volunteers who make this program a success.”
Steven and Lorrie McNutt, of Spokane, gave $500, as did Roger and Kathleen Chase.
Linda Solan, of Spokane, gave $500, writing, “I believe we stand stronger together in community. The Christmas Bureau Fund is a wonderful example of that here in Spokane. It’s my pleasure to be a part of it.”
Robert and Mary Eckenrode, of Spokane, gave $500, writing “Thank you to the wonderful Christmas Fund volunteers. Our donation is in memory of our dear friend, Neil Huggins. He lived a life of joy, exuberance and volunteering, especially at Christmas! Neil was the only person we know who could keep a fresh Christmas tree alive, and decorated, until February! We miss him!”
Gust Abariotes, of Spokane Valley, gave $500, writing, “Please tell the volunteers thank you and Merry Christmas.”
Barry and Carol Jones gave $500, writing, “Thank you for all you do for so many. A happy holiday season to all.” An anonymous donor also gave $500.
Deb, Pam and Jim Repp, of Spokane Valley, gave $450.
Joe and Pam Ridlington, of Mead, gave $350, writing, “Thanks again for making the Christmas holiday special for all. We appreciate all the work the volunteers do. Merry Christmas to all.”
The Caskey Family, of Spokane, gave $300.
Frances Waddell, of Spokane, gave $260, writing, “Once again I have saved all year so I may help this wonderful cause. Best wishes for a Merry Christmas to you and all the volunteers who make this possible.”
Dave and Barb FloydNewport, of Spokane, gave $250, writing, “Thank you for doing this.”
Neil and Brigid Krause, of Spokane, gave $250, as well as an anonymous donor.
Carol Kriegh’s book club in Cheney pooled $225 to donate. Kreigh wrote, “Hopefully it can go toward purchasing children’s books.”
Gary and Sharon Randall, of Colbert, gave $225 in memory of Pres and Margaret Cleveland, and Les and Clara Randall.
Russell and Kathy Mager, of Lewiston, gave $200.
Jud and Beverly Heathcote, of Spokane, gave $200, writing, “Keep up the good work.”
William and Rita Vancleve, of Spokane, also gave $200.
Marcy Frank, of Spokane, gave $200, writing, “To the volunteers! God bless you for all your work. Your work gives smiles and happiness to many children.”
Joseph and Janice Kaley, of Spokane, gave $200, writing, “We have always felt that the Christmas Bureau provides help to so many less fortunate people and are happy to be a small part of it. Please accept this donation in honor of Bill Kuch, a good friend, who delivered toys to you every year. He was such a quiet and sincere man.”
Nancy and Scott Stowell, and Ralph and Debra Prouty, of Spokane, gave $200.
Leeanne Stallings, of Spokane, gave $150, as did an anonymous donor.
Bill Bhotzke, of Spokane, gave $150, writing, “God bless you and Merry Christmas to you.”
Gary and Judy Spangelo, of Cheney, gave $100.
Dan and Carole Driscoll, of Colbert, gave $100.
Nancy and Bob James, of Liberty Lake, gave $100.
Barry and Nancy Larson, of Medical Lake, gave $100, writing, “Thank you to all the volunteers that give life to this wonderful Christmas Fund drive.”
Mary Sullivan and Alex Atacador, of Spokane, gave $100, writing, “Please accept this donation in remembrance of Daniel P. Sullivan. Your efforts make a lot of people happy.”
Karen Harrington, of Spokane, gave $100, writing “As a volunteer, I am impressed by how well this event is organized. Enjoy working there each year.”
Five more $100 donations were made by the following Spokane residents: Bob and Kathy Bohlen, Ralph Jr. and Joyce Prouty, Joyce Stefanoff, Phyllis Robison, and Catherine Lundberg.
David Bennett, of Spokane Valley, gave $100, writing “In memory of my mother, Madeline Bennett, who I miss every day, but especially during the holiday season. She loved Christmas, getting together with family.”
Cynthia Miles, of Spokane Valley, gave $100, as well as three anonymous donors.
Gordon and Terri Radford, of Hayden, gave $75.
Marlene Westhoff and Nancy Sherman, of Spokane, gave $75, writing “Thank you for all your service for so many.”
An anonymous donor gave $51.23.
Clyde Ylitalo, of Coeur d’Alene, gave $50.
Charles and Sharon Preston, of Nine Mile Falls, gave $50.
Esther Westlund, of Spokane, gave $50, writing, “So thankful you’re doing this. You are helping many.”
Linda Williamson, Don and Liz Wilson, Kim and Sheri Barnard, and Lorraine Cannon, all of Spokane, gave $50 donations.
Liz Russell, of Spokane, also gave $50, writing, “In loving memory of my parents, Chuck and Joy White, who were active in their communities during their lives, living their ideals with loving action.”
Richard and Ann Collins, of Spokane, gave $50, writing, “Good work!”
Willbann and Virginia Terpening, of Spokane, gave $50, writing, “Thank you for your hard work!”
Dorene Bailey, of Spokane, gave $50, writing, “It was a great place to work. Keep up the good work.”
Mark and Mary Claire Warfield, of Spokane Valley, gave $50.
An anonymous donor gave $50 in memory of a daughter and grandson.
Charlie and Mary Ellen Steen, and Gary and Kathryn James, gave $50, as well as two anonymous donors.
A.M. and Evelyn Graves gave $50 in memory of Bill Graves.
Steve and Nancy Kiss, of Metaline, gave $40.
Jay and Debbie Humphrey, of Spokane, gave $35 in memory of Frank and Vera Romero.
William and Gelene Griffiths, of Nine Mile Falls, gave $30.
Andrew and Nanci Slipper, of Spokane, gave $25, writing, “Thank you for all you do! Merry Christmas.”
Des and Barbara Boucher gave $25 in memory of Richard McKenney and Nicholas Clason. Betty Thompson, and an anonymous donor, also gave $25.
Alfred and Michelle Ungaro, of Spokane, gave $20.
An anonymous donor gave $20 In memory of Annabelle, and three more anonymous donors also gave $20.
Ruth Griffin, of Spokane, gave $10, as did an anonymous donor who wrote, “Have a good holiday season.”
Judith Horton, of Coeur d’Alene, gave $5.