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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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At Crosswalk Christmas, the gift of warmth for homeless youth

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 21, 2017

One by one, young adults filed through what, in ordinary circumstances, would be a bedroom at the Crosswalk shelter in downtown Spokane.

They grabbed Christmas gifts, stockings, blankets and coats donated by community groups, local businesses and families to help stay warm during the winter.

And many took a sleeping bag off the middle table.

“I’ve been catching cold,” said Brandon Vornhader, 20, who normally sleeps bundled in a tarp by the Lucky Leaf store downtown. He used to stay at the shelter, which serves teens, and is still enrolled in the GED program.

Staff told him they’d be handing out sleeping bags and other items a few days ago, he said, so he grabbed one in hopes of staying warmer.

The bag giveaway was the work of Helen Gao, a sophomore at Ferris High School. Gao recently started a Washington chapter of the International Association of Youth, a leadership organization based in California.

So far she’s the only member, but that didn’t stop her from buying 50 sleeping bags through IAY and donating them to Crosswalk.

“Everyone deserves to be warm and comfortable, especially during the holiday season,” Gao said. She wanted to help Crosswalk because she identifies with teenagers and young adults and felt people were less aware of the work the relatively small shelter does.

“I feel like it doesn’t get the attention that it deserves,” she said.

When teens turn 18, they age out of the shelter, but many stay connected through high school completion programs or other work with staff, said Bridget Cannon, the director of youth services for Volunteers of America, which runs Crosswalk. Regardless of age, Cannon thinks of all of them as “my kiddos,” and everyone is welcome back for the annual Christmas party.

After a hearty dinner, people opened presents in the shelter’s main room.

Tom Moroni, 20, was ecstatic over a velvetey, light blue sheet set.

“I’m not getting out of bed now!” he said.

Moroni stayed at Crosswalk when he was 17 before moving to Seattle for a few years, where he did homeless advocacy work while remaining homeless himself.

He’s back in Spokane now helping his best friend raise her three children: a pair of nine-year-old twins and a 15-year-old. In exchange for his help parenting, he gets an apartment to call home.

Moroni said he stays in touch with Crosswalk and tries to donate when he can to support other homeless teens.

“Even though I’m not here anymore, I like to help the people,” he said. Crosswalk was able to get together bags of presents for all three of the kids he’s raising.

“They get the best stuff here,” he said.

Gao watched as dozens of people ate and unwrapped presents, chatting with Cannon. She hopes to recruit more people to get involved with her IAY group and do similar service projects.

“Right now, it’s just me,” she said.

She brought the sleeping bags to the shelter just after Thanksgiving and said it was rewarding to see them find homes with people who can use them.

“When you see it all happen and you see people being helped, it feels good,” she said.

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