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Pandemic threatens legacy of Christmas Bureau

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 23, 2020

Boxes of toys that were supposed to be handed out to families to ensure every child had a gift to open Christmas Morning will be stored for a year because of the pandemic restrictions.  (The Christmas Bureau)
Boxes of toys that were supposed to be handed out to families to ensure every child had a gift to open Christmas Morning will be stored for a year because of the pandemic restrictions. (The Christmas Bureau)
By Nina Culver The Spokesman-Review

The COVID-19 pandemic is playing the role of the Grinch this year, ruining plans for the Christmas Bureau to ensure the poorest children in the Spokane region have at least a toy to open and a new book to read.

In a normal year, families would gather at the Spokane County Interstate Fairgrounds during two weeks in December, receiving a grocery store food voucher and a toy and a book for each child in their family. The Christmas Bureau has been among the region’s treasured charities for decades, funded each year by community donations collected by The Spokesman-Review and distributed to Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington and the Volunteers of America, which buy the toys and books.

Volunteers spent all year selecting and buying books and toys to give out during this difficult year. But the new restrictions imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee this week scuttled plans to distribute toys to needy families in what volunteers had envisioned as a pandemic-appropriate drive-through distribution at the Fairgrounds, said Christmas Bureau Coordinator Sierra Heinen.

Heinen said that many Christmas Bureau volunteers are at high risk for COVID because of their age and health. Even before the recent restrictions went into place some had indicated they wouldn’t be able to come this year.

“Our volunteers have been dedicated to this for many years and their average age is 73,” she said.

The Christmas Bureau normally takes all year to plan and organize. The normal plan that has worked smoothly for years was changed two months ago and new circumstances have forced this latest change, Heinen said. Organizers believe it is the best option left available.

“We had to find a way to continue to serve our community,” she said. “Tears have been shed over this.”

The toys and books remain boxed and resting on pallets in storage.

Heinen said new plans are afoot to offer some sort of assistance as the holidays nears.

“We have things in place to pivot,” she said. “It doesn’t end here.”

The tentative plan, put together hastily in the last few days, is to instead distribute toy vouchers to the families most in need.

“We’re still working on the logistics on how this is going to go,” said Kassi Kain, Director of Mission Sustainability at Catholic Charities.

Christmas Bureau volunteers, wearing masks and socially distanced, have already processed more than 6,700 online applications for assistance this year. The application window opened in early October and was supposed to shut down on Nov. 6, but it has remained open to encourage more people in need to apply at cceasternwa.org/christmas-bureau.

Grocery store vouchers have already gone out to families, along with a letter telling them what day and time to go to the Fairgrounds to pick up toys for their children. A new email is now set to go out to families Friday informing them of the changes, including the cancellation of curbside pickup.

The toys and books were purchased with the expectation of being reimbursed by community donations collected between Thanksgiving and Christmas. But this last-minute switch means that there is limited money available for toy vouchers, so those vouchers will not be given to every family that applied.

“We want those second vouchers to help those most in need,” Kain said.

Kain said organizers know that some families won’t have a Christmas without the Christmas Bureau. “We know that for some of our recipients the toy picked up at the Christmas Bureau may be the only toy under the tree on Christmas Day and we still want to help you,” the email sent to recipients said.

Those who have already applied for Christmas Bureau assistance and have a need for toys are asked to send an email to christmas.bureau@cceasternwa.org with the words “Toy Voucher” in the subject line. People are asked to include their name, address, phone number and three or four sentences about their circumstances.

“It’s really going to be first come, first served until we run out of funds for vouchers,” Kain said. “We want to get out as many as we can. We want to keep Christmas alive and our clients and volunteers alive.”

Catholic Charities does have some handcrafted wooden toy trucks to give out, as well as some donated Beanie Babies. Those will be given to some families that email asking for assistance with toys.

The new restrictions mean that the legions of Christmas Bureau volunteers who eagerly sign up for shifts every year can no longer participate in the process. The public is not allowed inside Catholic Charities headquarters, leaving the Christmas Bureau in the hands of three staffers who already have full-time jobs. It will be up to them to handle the expected flood of emails and do what they can to help as many as they can.

Kain said she knows that the Spokane community is generous and expects to hear from people who will say they want to volunteer so the Christmas Bureau can go on. However, that’s just not an option, she said. “The best thing they can do to help us is to make a donation,” she said.

Donation checks can be mailed to The Spokesman-Review Christmas Fund, PO Box 516, Spokane WA 99210 or dropped off at 999 W. Riverside Ave. Donors can also visit spokesman.com/sections/christmas-fund and click the PayPal button.

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