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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Christmas Bureau volunteers begin processing helper applications

UPDATED: Sun., Nov. 1, 2020

“Volunteer Elf Workshop 1” in the Catholic Charities headquarters near downtown Spokane.  (Nina Culver)
“Volunteer Elf Workshop 1” in the Catholic Charities headquarters near downtown Spokane. (Nina Culver)
By Nina Culver The Spokesman-Review

Mike Wilson and Linda Terry sit in an office labeled “Volunteer Elf Workshop 1” in the Catholic Charities headquarters near downtown Spokane. It’s their job to help process the thousands of online applications filled out by those hoping to get assistance from the Christmas Bureau this year.

The Christmas Bureau hands out a food voucher to each family in need as well as a toy and a book for each child. It is operated by Catholic Charities, the Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review. Each year the community donates hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to bring a Christmas celebration to those who need it.

This year the Christmas Bureau is different. Normally families go to the Spokane County Fairgrounds and apply on site before selecting toys and books for their children. This year the application is online and parents are asked to select several gift options that can be picked up in a drive through in December. The application deadline is Nov. 6.

Processing the applications is fairly straightforward, Wilson said. “We see if all the information is correct – the toys the children want, the number of the people in the household,” he said. “If that’s correct, we process it.”

If there’s information missing, the volunteers call the family to get everything straightened out. Once the application is approved, a food voucher is printed in an amount determined by family size. The vouchers and a letter giving the date and time of toy pickup will be mailed the week of Nov. 16.

“On the first day of mailing, we’ll have thousands of letters,” Wilson said.

Then the family’s packing slip is printed, which includes their name, a unique number and the date of time of pickup. “That goes out to the Fairgrounds so they can pick out the toys and get them ready,” he said.

Both Wilson and Terry are experienced Christmas Bureau volunteers. Terry has been doing it so long she can’t remember when she started. “I know it’s been more than 10 years,” she said. “It really is fun. It just sucks you in.”

She has done a variety of jobs over the years, including doing intake, where volunteers get a chance to set down and talk a bit with families. “I have done a lot of the different areas, but I really enjoy doing the intake,” she said.

Terry said she didn’t hesitate to sign up this year, despite the pandemic. “There wasn’t even a question,” she said. “It was all, ‘What can I do to help?’ ”

Wilson, on the other hand, knows exactly how long he’s been a Christmas Bureau volunteer. “I started coming after I retired as CEO of Sacred Heart and Providence,” he said. “Seven years of fun.”

He used to do intake as well. “We really enjoy being here remotely because it needs to be done, but we miss being able to talk to people,” he said.

Terry said the times she’s had to call a family about their application they’re always so grateful. “Absolutely they’re happy that this is happening,” she said. “They’re so appreciative.”

This year’s recipients reflect the uncertain economy. Terry said many families she’s talked to haven’t had to use the Christmas Bureau before. “I have found I’ve come across a lot of applicants that weren’t here last year,” she said.

Last year nearly 8,000 families received help from the Christmas Bureau. As of Thursday, only 4,300 applications had been received. There have been some issues with the online application, which was created over the summer, but organizers have been working on them, said Christmas Bureau coordinator Sierra Heinen.

The toy catalogue in particular was bulky and slow, Heinen said, but she urges people who may have had difficulty with it to try again. “We converted it to a PDF, so it runs a lot faster and smoother,” she said.

The online application is available at Proof of income is not required, but proof of residency and the number of people in the home is required. Those who do not have access to the internet can call Catholic Charities at (509) 358-4250 to get assistance filling out the application over the phone. Assistance is also available to single adults.

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