Paula Bulkley has a saying: Santa doesn’t make mistakes.
“I get very depressed, if I can’t find exactly what the child wants,” said Bulkley, who, in addition to her duties as an elf for the nonprofit charity Fantasy Flight that flies area children each year to the North Pole, has logged nearly 22,000 hours as a volunteer at Shriners Hospital. “That’s a big one for me. It can be pretty stressful.”
Sometimes the gift is serendipitous. Bulkley, who devoted her life to volunteering after her husband, Greg, took a job as a commercial pilot, remembered one little girl who had her heart set on a stuffed animal with big eyes.
“She didn’t say what she wanted,” Bulkley said. “That was a popular gift, that year. I had these big, beautiful bags that they give me to put the individual gifts in.
“She opened that bag and started crying. I’d gotten her a white seal that big,” Bulkley said, stretching her arms to about the width of a bread loaf.
The child, who was homeless, had lost a seal the exact same color, but slightly smaller, some weeks before. She believed St. Nick had found her lost “best friend” who’d grown in the time they’d been apart.
“What are the chances that I would have put the right gift in the right bag?” Bulkley wondered.
Steve Paul, president of the Spokane Fantasy Flight charity, said the chances were pretty good given Bulkley’s meticulous attention to detail. Charity workers call her “Power Paula.”
“Her strength of character, her dedication to detail is undeniable,” Paul said. “If you watch her, she’s a force unto herself.”
Joan Jamison, a friend, nominated Bulkley for The Spokesman-Review’s Women of the Year recognition both for her work at Fantasy Flight and Shriners.
“She has the ability to get things done,” Jamison said.
Bulkley developed her devotion to service as a member of U.S. Rep. Tom Foley’s staff during the last decade of the longtime lawmaker’s tenure in office. There, Bulkley completed casework for constituents, such as helping to schedule medical appointments for veterans.
After Foley lost his ’94 re-election bid, Bulkley was asked to deliver some donated binders to a school for homeless children being run by the local YWCA. That became her first volunteer position after Greg Bulkley took a job with United Airlines, and she eventually organized the clothing bank for students.
“When they were showing me around, there was a big pile of clothes that the teachers didn’t have time to go through there, to find the size that fits,” she said.
Bulkley helped organize those clothes by size, so that students could quickly pick out what they needed. She continued working at the YWCA school program until 2001, when her husband left his commercial pilot’s job to fly for the Washington Air National Guard following the 9/11 attacks. Paula Bulkley stayed at home for a year, then began working for Shriners.
For the past 17 years, she’s logged close to 22,000 hours of volunteer work, mostly in marketing and business development. She works a little less than 40 hours a week, unless it’s during a fundraising push, like this past weekend, when she estimated she spent around 50 hours in preparation for an open house event.
“My big thing is that I want to be an extra set of hands if somebody needs some help,” she said. “I try to do that.”
Greg Bulkley interjected as his wife spoke, usually to add an accomplishment she had either forgotten or failed to mention. He noted that her hair this week is longer than it usually is, because his wife plans to donate to a charity that provides hair for women being treated for cancer, after her own bout with the disease years ago.
Of course, she volunteered at Fantasy Flight through those treatments.
“She has the biggest heart of anybody I’ve ever met,” Greg Bulkley said. “That’s where it comes from.”
That’s especially true when it comes to children. For years, Paula Bulkley would purchase jewelry boxes inspired by the film “Frozen,” bedding emblazoned with superheroes and stuffed animals as large as their realistic counterparts, only to miss the moment the toys were delivered as she helped St. Nick behind the scenes.
In the past few years, the North Pole was reconfigured to allow Bulkley into the room with the roughly 60 to 65 children she shops for each year. Remembering those moments – like the little girl who climbed into her bag to retrieve each individual gift – brings a big smile to Bulkley’s face.
The experience gives kids a sense of normalcy, even amid turmoil in their lives, she said.
“They don’t have a whole lot to talk about,” she said. “The teacher will say, ‘Who’s doing something fun this weekend?’ That’s not necessarily for these kids. But Monday morning, when they’re back, they’re wearing their Fantasy Flight stuff. They’re talking about how great it was to see Santa.”
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