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Santa Express offers children a grown-up Christmas experience

UPDATED: Sun., Dec. 15, 2019

Amelia Wilson, 4, grins as she finds the perfect stamp to decorate a gift bag with alongside her “elf,” Amanda Dikes, in the Santa Express shop in River Park Square on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019. The Christmas-themed temporary shop offers children the opportunity to shop for family members while accompanied by "elves" (volunteers) who guide them to gifts within their budgets. Though all gifts are between 50 cents and $10, the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery benefits from the proceeds. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
Amelia Wilson, 4, grins as she finds the perfect stamp to decorate a gift bag with alongside her “elf,” Amanda Dikes, in the Santa Express shop in River Park Square on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019. The Christmas-themed temporary shop offers children the opportunity to shop for family members while accompanied by "elves" (volunteers) who guide them to gifts within their budgets. Though all gifts are between 50 cents and $10, the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery benefits from the proceeds. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

On a busy Sunday full of holiday shopping at River Park Square, 9-year-old Collin Bailey got to buy presents for his parents all by himself with the help of an elf.

Bailey shopped at the Santa Express store, an annual pop-up shop that provides children with an independent shopping experience and gives back to the community with proceeds donated to the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery.

The crisis nursery was founded in 1987 after its namesake died from injuries related to child abuse at age 2. Now, Vanessa Behan provides emergency childcare for up to 72 hours at a time and helps connect families to other community programs.

This is Bailey’s fourth year shopping at Santa Express, an activity he loves “because I didn’t want my parents to know what I got.”

This year the store is located in the basement of the Old City Hall building, connected to River Park Square.

Each year, Bailey picks out items with the help of a volunteer elf who guides the children through the store and helps them choose gifts for the people on their list, while staying on budget.

“I know which animal they like or which color they like,” Bailey said as he picked up a T-rex toy.

His parents, Dugan and Kalynda Bailey, love the independence it gives their son.

“He loves us not knowing,” Kalynda Bailey said. “He’s not very good at secrets, but he keeps this one.”

Last year Bailey got his dad a robot and his mom a toy truck.

“He likes feeling all grown up and independent,” Kalynda Bailey said. “The way he approaches it is, he buys stuff he thinks that we might want but we wouldn’t buy for ourselves.”

One year, the family planned to go see Santa after Bailey finished his special shopping expedition. Bailey surprised his parents by picking out a present and giving it to Santa, who opened it on the spot.

“He’s just super thoughtful,” Dugan Bailey said.

While kids put a lot of thought into their gifts, volunteers have been working all year to prepare for the monthlong Santa Express shopping season.

The store is open from Nov. 23 to Dec. 23, and preparations for next year’s store starts promptly three days later. Volunteers buy things like mugs, stuffed animals, themed socks, jewelry, pencils, erasers and bouncy balls.

Marie Stadtmueller has been volunteering with Santa Express since 1999 and does a lot of the buying.

“We start shopping for the next year on Dec. 26 to get closeout deals,” Stadtmueller said.

Santa Express has been the main fundraising event for the Vanessa Behan auxiliary committee for the past 27 years, said Santa Express Executive Director Hayley Lydig.

About 1,200 volunteer shifts need to be filled each year so almost 4,000 children can come shop on their own.

Last year, Santa Express raised $110,000 for the crisis nursery and Lydig said they hope to raise a similar number this year, although moving out of River Park Square has reduced foot traffic.

The Vanessa Behan Crisis Shelter is gearing up for a move to a new facility on Monday, allowing the group to provide a safe haven for more children.

“We’re 100% privately funded so events like this allow us to keep our doors open and bring kiddos in,” said Amy Vega, executive director at Vanessa Behan.

For many families, shopping at Santa Express has become part of their holiday traditions.

Amanda Noddings has been volunteering since she was in seventh grade and came for a shift with her youth group.

Now 26 years later, Noddings not only continues to volunteer but brings her own children in to shop.

“I pick up as many shifts each year as I can,” Noddings said.

Noddings brought her two kids to shop Saturday night and noted the differences in spending between the two. Her daughter spent every penny of her budget while her son had money left to spare, Noddings explained.

He gave Noddings a clue for her gift, “It’s something you have a lot of,” he said. Noddings’ current guess is a pen but “we’ll have to wait and see.”

“It teaches them to think about someone other than themselves. That’s what this season is all about,” Noddings said.

While Santa Express is a great way to give back to others, many families take the opportunity to teach their children about budgeting and that Christmas costs money, Lydig said.

“I think what makes us so special is that introduction into budgets and shopping,” Lydig said. “A lot of families use it as a way to explain that Christmas costs money and it’s more than just the gifts that you receive.”

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