Children pushed carts up and down the aisles of the General Store Saturday, tossing toys into their baskets and plotting what to get next with their friends.
Soren Hokonson, 5, picked out the classic Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, a “scary squishy” squid and a tent to set up in his room at the rental house he lives in with his parents and siblings after a fire burned down their home in Malden.
The small towns of Malden and Pine City were devastated in September when a fire burned the majority of the homes in towns to the ground. After a more than month-long fundraiser, the General Store gave approximately 55 children from the two towns a shopping spree to replace some of their favorite toys and clothes. Children could shop on either Saturday or Sunday spending their money on whatever sparked their interest.
For Alicia Barranco, Soren’s stepmom, the day was overwhelming.
“It’s overwhelming considering how much we have to replace,” Barranco said. “Obviously, the kids are the first priority. Soren lost all of his toys.”
Getting her youngest son set up with toys before Christmas was exciting, especially with all three children spending lots of time at home with virtual school.
The middle child, Nathan Hokonson, 15, picked out some new clothes, bandanas and a Frisbee with his money.
“I thought it was super cool, and it seems like a great thing they’re doing for the community,” he said of the shopping spree.
The thing he misses most is a pair of yellow and plaid pants he had purchased right before the fire. He had quite the wardrobe, he said, and is slowly finding new stylish items.
“This is the first thing where I can, like, replace some stuff, so that’s pretty nice,” he said.
His father, Scott Hokonson, has been working full time on the recovery effort in Malden. While the family had insurance and is currently living in a rental home, “it’s not the same,” he said.
A shopping spree sounds great, Scott Hokonson said, but it also brings back memories of the things he’s lost.
General Store owner Bruce Barany saw the devastation in Malden and took it as a “call to action.”
“It was almost unbelievable,” Barany said of the fires.
An avid hunter and Spokane resident, Barany has spent decades visiting the Malden and Pine City area.
“I kind of know the area, know the community,” Barany said. “I thought, this is our backyard and, you know, charity really begins at home.”
So Barany decided to start a “round up” fundraiser where customers could round up the price of their purchase with the proceeds going to the Malden families.
In a little over a month, they raised $8,500 due to an “overwhelming” response from the community which was divided to give about $140 to each child, Barany said.
On Saturday when he came into work, Barany had forgotten it was shopping day, so when he saw children running around with baskets full of toys, he was a bit bewildered.
“I thought, ‘Is Santa Claus up here or what?’ ” he said with a chuckle.
Jace Lindgren-Miller, 8, spent more than an hour wandering the General Store looking for the perfect things to spend his money on.
His snow pants are too long, so Lindgren-Miller decided new snow pants, winter boots, a hat and gloves were necessary for snowmobiling this winter.
To round out the haul, Lindgren-Miller picked out a tiger face mask and a pillow shaped like a Rubik’s Cube.
His mother, Heidi Lindgren, was thrilled at the chance to replace the winter gear lost in the fire.
“We’ve been working on it but also I don’t want to bet a bunch because we don’t have a house yet,” she said.
Lindgren and her son are living with her twin sister, Heather Smith.
Smith was building a new home that became livable just outside Malden only days before the fire burned down their home in town.
“It was just complete and total devastation,” Smith said.
As the school board president in Rosalia, Smith helped put together the list of eligible children for the shopping spree with her friend Vanessa Place.
“We were like, we could probably make sure we get every kid possible on this list,” Place said of volunteering to help out.
The shopping spree was exciting, Place said, because it was really a free-for-all for her four children.
“Not often do you get handed $25 to go shopping, let alone $100,” she said.
While the kids were excited to shop for themselves, they also showed their gratitude for their parents. A few children asked whether they could use some of their money on their parents, but all the parents seemed to be in agreement.
“Don’t worry about parents,” Place said. “This is for you guys.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify the amount of money each child was given to spend at The General Store.
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