Colleen Connors and her daughter, Sophie Owens, are two of the dedicated volunteers who keep the Christmas Bureau running smoothly every year as toys and books are given to children in need.
The annual effort is run by Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review. It relies on the generosity of community donors to pay for food for each family as well as a toy and a book for each child.
The mother and daughter duo typically works doing intake two or three days each year, using computers to check in each recipient and their family. They’re the ones who hear the stories of what brought people to the bureau – a lost job, a divorce, a death in the family.
There have been many memorable stories, but Connors said she remembers one woman in particular. She’d lost her job but was ashamed to be there asking for help. “She broke down and cried, because she didn’t think she’d have to be asking,” Connors said. “She was very embarrassed.”
Connors assured her that it was OK, that the bureau exists to help people who might be having a tough year for whatever reason. “That’s why we’re here,” she said.
Hearing those stories helps reinforce the fact that anyone could be in that position of needing help since so many are one emergency away from financial disaster. “It can be anybody,” Connors said. “It’s good for my daughter, too. I think that’s a good education.”
Years ago it was her son, Riley Owens, who volunteered at the bureau. He’d just graduated from Seattle University and was getting ready to go into the Army. “He was on a break and wanted to volunteer,” she said.
He signed up for the Christmas Bureau and was there every day. He’d tell his mother what he’d seen and done. The next year he was stationed elsewhere and couldn’t do it, so Connors and her daughter decided to step up and fill his shoes. That was seven years ago.
“Every year we look forward to it,” she said. “It’s part of our tradition. It’s been a really fun thing for us to do together.”
Connors is the human resources director at Hospice of Spokane and said she takes time off every year to help out. “I take vacation, but they’re very supportive,” she said of her employer. “What’s neat is that I see volunteers there that volunteer here.”
Though people often tell her they’re grateful for the help the bureau gives them, Connors said she feels like she gets as much out of it as they do. “It’s a great opportunity to give back,” she said. “It’s a great program. I think it’s pretty impressive. I love being able to tell people there’s good toys back there, there’s a lot of books.”
Connors also likes being among many of the same volunteers each year.
“I think it’s just that sense of community,” she said. “Everyone is happy to be there.”
She said she aspires to be a volunteer with decades of experience one day. “I’d love to keep doing it and be one of those people,” she said.
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