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Pandemic puts Christmas Bureau in a cash crunch

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 25, 2020

The Russian Home-schooled Choir sing holiday songs during the Christmas Bureau, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019, at the Spokane County Fair & Expo Center.  (DAN PELLE)
The Russian Home-schooled Choir sing holiday songs during the Christmas Bureau, Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019, at the Spokane County Fair & Expo Center. (DAN PELLE)
By Nina Culver The Spokesman-Review

The news last week was as painful to implement as it was to hear: The pandemic has forced the Christmas Bureau to cancel plans to hand out toys in a socially distanced drive-thru event at the Spokane County Fairgrounds next month.

Rob McCann, CEO of Catholic Charities Eastern Washington, said his staff quickly came up with an alternative plan within days of new restrictions announced by Gov. Jay Inslee in the wake of rising COVID-19 cases. The new plan is to give families vouchers so they can buy their own toys to give to their children on Christmas morning, but there’s a significant hitch. There likely won’t be enough money to give every family a toy voucher because the vouchers weren’t planned for or funded.

“We’re going to empty the bank accounts and do everything we can to get out those second vouchers,” McCann said. “We’re going to dip into money we don’t necessarily have to pay for toy vouchers.”

This year started like any other in the past few decades. Volunteers started buying toys in January for the anticipated Christmas Bureau event next month at the fairgrounds. The toys were ordered, paid for and their delivery timed so they would arrive shortly before they were distributed. Those toys were, in fact, delivered. They now sit in storage gathering dust.

Catholic Charities and Volunteers of America buy books and toys throughout the year and are reimbursed at the end of the year by donations collected by The Spokesman-Review from people in Spokane and as far away as Japan. The nonprofit organizations still need to be reimbursed for what they bought this year, but now they’re also trying to come up with money to pay for toy vouchers.

The only solution is to use this year’s donations to cover the purchases of toys and books and use next year’s donations to cover the cost of the toy vouchers, McCann said. That is only possible because the Bureau can use the stored toys and books next year and won’t have to buy more, he said. Still, it’s a gamble that relies on the continued generosity of donors this year and next year.

“We’re going way out on a limb by issuing these secondary vouchers, but we’re going to take that risk,” he said.

There are also other unplanned expenses. The toys and books are usually delivered right before distribution, but now they have to be stored for a year.

“We’re getting a deal on that and it’s still $1,700 a month,” McCann said.

Volunteers have mailed out more than 6,700 grocery store vouchers to those who applied to the Christmas Bureau online and thousands more toy vouchers will be mailed. Those postage costs aren’t usually part of the funding equation, McCann said.

“It doesn’t seem like a lot of money, but it adds up,” he said.

McCann said that in addition to the new restrictions, it simply isn’t safe to have volunteers congregate at the fairgrounds for the two-week toy distribution. Many volunteers are in a high-risk category because of their age and health conditions. The average age of Christmas Bureau volunteers is 73.

The Bureau has asked the National Guard for assistance handing out toys, but McCann said the request is a long shot. In addition to needing about 75 guardsmen and women for 10 days, which is a major request, handing out toys doesn’t fit with the National Guard mission. During the pandemic it is focused on delivering food, doing COVID testing and doing contract tracing, McCann said.

“We know it’s probably not going to happen,” he said. “We kind of felt like we had to exhaust every possibility and ask.”

After much discussion, this year’s fundraising goal remains at $535,000, the same amount it has been for the past several years. McCann said he knows this has been a difficult year for people who have been out of work and for small businesses that have struggled. He knows that some regular donors, particularly those in the hospitality and restaurant industries, not only won’t be able to donate this year but may need help themselves.

“This year, let us help you,” he said. “We’re going to say a prayer for them, give them a voucher and see them next year.”

But it’s because it has been a difficult year that the Christmas Bureau must go forward in some fashion, Spokesman-Review publisher Stacey Cowles said.

“There’s probably even greater need this year for folks who don’t have resources,” Cowles said.

There was never a thought that the Christmas Bureau wouldn’t continue and that The Spokesman-Review wouldn’t be a part of it, Cowles said.

“We’re absolutely committed to continuing this tradition,” he said. “We really need stuff like this when times are so uncertain. I think it’s something that captures everybody’s heart.”

McCann said the Christmas Bureau is moving forward on the faith that the organizations will be reimbursed for this year’s extra expenses and that donors will come through with the needed funding.

“The Christmas Bureau brings a miracle to the community,” he said. “This year, we need a Christmas miracle.”

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