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Why couldn’t the traditional Christmas Bureau gift drive be saved this year? A look at the tough decision

Janie Parker-Slater sets up dolls in the toy room for the Spokesman-Review Christmas Bureau, Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2019, at the Spokane County Fair & Expo Center. The traditional toy distribution was replaced with a voucher system this year because of challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.   (DAN PELLE)
Janie Parker-Slater sets up dolls in the toy room for the Spokesman-Review Christmas Bureau, Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2019, at the Spokane County Fair & Expo Center. The traditional toy distribution was replaced with a voucher system this year because of challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.  (DAN PELLE)
By Nina Culver The Spokesman-Review

The news that the Christmas Bureau would be handing out vouchers this year instead of toys and books hit hard, and some in the community have questioned whether organizers explored every avenue before putting the toys and books in storage to wait until next year.

Christmas Bureau Coordinator Sierra Heinen said many options were considered over the summer before organizers settled on mailing food vouchers and handing out toys in a drive-thru event at the Spokane County Fairgrounds. But days before volunteers were to begin unboxing and assembling toys, Gov. Jay Inslee imposed new restrictions on gatherings in the face of rising COVID-19 cases.

It wouldn’t have been as simple as handing out toys to cars driving by. Parents had been asked to select their top three toy picks for each child from an online catalogue and volunteers would have used that information to prepare a custom gift basket for each family.

“The distribution of the toy packages itself had many safety measures and socially distant procedures in place, but it was the assembly of the packages together inside of close quarters that made this a challenge,” Heinen said. “Each child was going to receive a gift tailored specifically for their interests and needs, which required more than just a distribution process.”

It was anticipated that it would take between 60 and 120 volunteers per day for 18 days to prepare and distribute the gift baskets.

“We serve around 15,000 kids,” Heinen said. “That’s a lot of presents.”

Thirteen of those days would have been devoted to unpacking toys, taking inventory, assembling toys and then packing the gift baskets, Heinen said. All that work would have taken place indoors, raising the COVID risk level.

“These are the days of the operation that could not have changed even if we were to have a delivery system for the packages,” she said. “As COVID cases started to rise, many of our volunteers were no longer comfortable taking shifts and we were having issues filling our schedule.”

The average age of Christmas Bureau volunteers is 73, putting them squarely in the COVID high-risk category. Heinen said many people have asked her why organizers didn’t simply recruit high school students or younger volunteers for the indoor work. Doing so would have been too risky, she said.

“It’s the fact that we would be gathering all those bodies in that space,” she said. “That’s the part of the operation that was the highest risk of spreading COVID.”

Other options, such as delivering gifts to people’s homes or having gift pick-up areas in different parts of town, would not have worked because it would have still required hundreds of volunteers working in close quarters to assemble the gift baskets, Heinen said.

In September, the Bureau reached out to some local first responders and asked if they could help. They received some offers from people willing to come in on their days off, but not enough, Heinen said. Looking back, Heinen said she’s glad that option didn’t work out.

“What if we got a massive group of first responders sick?” she said. “At the end of the day, it would have been irresponsible of us to have our first responders gathered to package gifts when they should be out in the community saving lives. We would be risking the safety of our community even further by taking first responders off the streets.”

In a last-ditch effort, organizers asked the National Guard for assistance last month.

“We haven’t heard back from them,” Heinen said.

Even though the request was made, organizers had expected to be turned down because handing out toys doesn’t fit with the National Guard mission to distribute food, do COVID testing and do contract tracing during the pandemic. Heinen said that even if the National Guard accepted the request now, it’s too late to begin the toy unpacking and assembly process.

“I don’t think we could get people their gifts before Christmas,” she said. “So much still had to happen.”

Heinen said organizers know that not everyone understands why the decision to go voucher-only was made, but they believed it was the best option. The number of daily COVID cases has continued to rise in Spokane County since Inslee’s restrictions were enacted, reaching a record of almost 700 new confirmed cases Tuesday.

“The rising COVID-19 cases were the biggest determining factor in this decision,” she said. “We had to keep our volunteers and clients safe. We made the decision out of love. We care so much about every single person.”

DonationsThe march toward Christmas continues as donations continue to come in to the Christmas Bureau. New donations of $19,245 have brought the year-to-date total to $213,305.55. The goal is to raise $535,000.

Carmela Conroy, of Spokane, donated $6,000 “in loving memory of my parents, and long-time Christmas Bureau volunteers, Bob and Judi Conroy.”

The Schoenberger Living Trust donated $1,500. “To all the volunteers of the 2020 Spokesman-Review Christmas Fund, thank you for all you do,” wrote Ronald Schoenberger. “This the 34th year the Schoenberger family has contributed to the Christmas Fund. In the memory of Shirley Schoenberger, please find enclosed this year’s contribution. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all.”

Dave McGann, who owns four Arby’s restaurants in Spokane, usually provides lunch to the Christmas Bureau volunteers every day for two weeks. This year he gave gift cards to the volunteers who helped process applications and this week donated an additional $1,000. “Arby’s Restaurants of Spokane, on behalf of our employees, give thanks and blessings to the many volunteers of the Christmas Bureau and wish all recipients a Merry Christmas!” McGann wrote.

Bill and Mabel McInerney, of Priest Lake, Idaho, donated $1,000. “Thank you for the huge effort every year!” they wrote.

Margaret Farris and Richard Funge, of Mead, gave $500. “May you all have a Merry Christmas,” they wrote. “A little extra for this trying year.” Robert and Mary Alice Jones, of Spokane Valley, contributed $500. Bruce and Kathleen Robarge and family, of Spokane, gave $500. Kathleen Sullivan, of Spokane, donated $500.

Jerome and Madora Parmentier, of Spokane Valley, sent $300, writing, “Blessings to all those you help and you all for the good work you do.” An anonymous Cheney donor gave $300, writing, “Thank you so much for what you do.”

The Michael Pearson Revocable Trust donated $250. Ellen Krehbiel and Jeff Wasson, of Colbert, sent $250 “in honor of our combined families.” Andre and Kathy LaSalle, of Spokane, sent $250 “hoping to provide more joy this holiday season.”

Tim and Lindsay Bristow, of Spokane, gave $225. John and Alexis Chasse, of Spokane, donated $200. An anonymous Cheney donor sent $200. Lois Havlicek, of Liberty Lake, gave $200 “in memory of Charles Havlicek, who died March 2, 2020.” Dixie Riddle and Mary Hoerner-Riddle, of Spokane, contributed $200. Rita and William Vancleve, of Spokane, gave $200.

Clint and Carol Allen, of Spokane Valley, gave $200 “in honor of our children: Michael and Darcy, Lara and Talia, Ayumi and Kaz; and grandchildren Alex, Nauttasha, Melissa and Kotomi and Minami Tatsuki.”

An anonymous Spokane donor gave $200, writing, “Thank you for all you do!”

Peggy and Robert Frank, of Spokane, donated $200 in memory of Harvey Waller. Nancy and Scott Stowell, of Spokane, sent $200.

Donna and Nicholas Zolecki, of Veradale, donated $150. An anonymous Spokane donor gave $150, writing, “I read about this fund every year with the intention of donating. The difficulties of this past year has finally gotten me to action. Thank you for our support of our community.” William and Elleen Dittman, of Spokane, contributed $150.

Cyrus McLean gave $125. Garnett Hordemann, of Spokane, sent $100, writing, “May 2021 be a truly peaceful and happy time for the world!” Robert and Erik Ozolins-House gave $100, writing, “Christmas may find me far from home in Bangkok, Thailand, but my heart will be in Spokane with my friends and family. My best to everyone at the Christmas Bureau, Catholic Charities and The Spokesman-Review. You make Spokane a wonderful place to call home, no matter how far away life takes me. Merry Christmas to you all.”

The following donors each gave $100: Ruth and Thomas Conklin, of Spokane Valley; Francy and Anjan Bose, of Pullman; Anne and John Bergman, of Spokane; Beverly Hayes, of Nine Mile Falls; Vicki Vitria, of Spokane; Francy and Anjan Bose, of Pullman; Gayle Sander, of Spokane; Robert Harris, of Veradale; Donald and Eleanor Limmer, of Liberty Lake; Jeff and Nancy Starr, of Spokane; John and Connie Overdorff, of Otis Orchards; Michael and Patty Hostetter, of Nine Mile Falls; and Jo Anne Granger, of Colbert.

Ron and Patricia Hardin, of Spokane, sent $100. “Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my wife and I are unable to volunteer for the Christmas Bureau this year,” he wrote. “I have been a volunteer for 18 years and my wife has served for four years. We have treasured the opportunity to be a part of this fine organization providing such a wonderful and necessary service to our local community. Since we cannot be a physical part of the Christmas Bureau, please accept this $100 donation.”

An anonymous Spokane donor gave $100 in memory of Joe and Irene Lynch, of Coulee Dam. Bob and LeeAnne Hanke, of Spokane Valley, sent $100, writing, “Merry Christmas to all!” Sandra McLaughline, of Spokane, donated $100, writing, “Thanks for everything you do to help people who need help. In memory of Mike, who passed away.” Two anonymous Spokane donors each sent $100.

An anonymous donor gave $100. Steven and Sandra Laney, of Spokane, gave $100 “in memory of Marge Overstreet, who loved all children.” Mike and Rose Smith contributed $100, writing, “Thank you for all you do.” Robert and Gloria Marshall, of Spokane, sent $100. An anonymous Post Falls donor gave $100, writing, “I am glad the Christmas Bureau is able to help even through this pandemic year.”

Janna and David Basham, of Spokane, contributed $100, as did Thomas Caswell, also of Spokane. Roger and Cathy Crum, of Spokane, donated $100.

Michelle and James Templeton, of Spokane, donated $75, writing, “Merry Christmas to you all and thank you for organizing this for our community!” Sharon and Skip Boyer, of Spokane Valley, gave $70.

An anonymous Spokane donor gave $50 in memory of Don Morley, of Grand Coulee. An anonymous Spokane Valley donor sent $50, writing, “Thank you so much for all you’ve done over the years to help those most in need. We hope you go beyond your goal so you’ll be able to have books next year.”

Craig and Tonia Thielman, of Spokane, contributed $50. “Thank you to all who work so hard to make the Spokesman Christmas Fund work and help so many,” they wrote. “Merry Christmas.” Elinor Iverson, of Spokane, sent $50. “I’m so sorry things are difficult this year,” she wrote. “I hope for better days ahead.” Warren Flath, of Spokane, sent $50.

Lee Chaney, of Spokane, contributed $50. Catherine Lundberg, of Spokane, sent $50. Scott and Leslie Huff, of Kingwood, Texas, gave $50. Eugene and Sue Blankenship, of Newman Lake, donated $50. Denise Kagie, of Spokane, gave $50. Marsha Hansen, of Spokane, contributed $50, as did Jeanette Lenseigne, of Liberty Lake. Jay and Tricia Sporn, of Spokane, donated $50. Edward and Susan Leach, of Coeur d’Alene, gave $50.

P. Freeman, of Spokane, sent $30. Sheri Barnard, of Spokane, gave $25. “Persevere!” she wrote. “Thank you for continuing your good work.” Betty and Randy Williams, of Spokane Valley, sent $25, as did William and Deanna Schneider, of Spokane. Sandra and Kenneth Goodner, of Four Lakes, contributed $25. Karen Ryan, of Spokane, gave $20.

If you go

Apply: Apply online at https://www.cceasternwa.org/christmas-bureau to receive a grocery store voucher.

Toys: Those who have already applied online and are in need of toys can send an email to christmas.bureau@cceasternwa.org. Do not put in a second application. Put “Toy Voucher” in the subject line and include your name, address, phone number and three or four sentences about your circumstances. Vouchers will be distributed on a first come, first served basis to those in the most need and it’s likely that not everyone will receive a toy voucher.

How to donate

By mail: Checks may be mailed to The Spokesman-Review Christmas Fund, P.O. Box 516, Spokane, WA 99210.

In person: Bring your donation to the lobby of The Spokesman-Review at 999 W. Riverside Ave. Please mark prominently, CHRISTMAS FUND. If you would like a receipt sent to you, include your mailing address or email address.

Online: Visit www.spokesman.com/sections/christmas-fund and click the PayPal button.

If you’d like us to send you a receipt for your donation, make sure to include your mailing address in PayPal’s comment box. If you’d like a receipt via email, just include a valid email address. In either case, we won’t share your information with anyone or use it for any other reason. And feel free to use the comment box to tell us anything you’d like.

Questions?

Email The Spokesman-Review at christmasfund@spokesman.com.

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