As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, it has become expected for treasured, longtime annual traditions to be upended, canceled or re-imagined in the face of crowd-size limitations and social distancing requirements. The Christmas Bureau, which got its start in 1945, is no different.
The Bureau is an annual tradition that gives food vouchers to families in need at Christmas, along with a toy and a book for each child. Usually the Bureau is a well-oiled machine run by Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington, Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review. Volunteers sign up months in advance to work shifts at the Spokane County Fairgrounds during the two weeks the Bureau is open to serve families in need.
But this fall, the pandemic forced a quick shift to an online model. Recipients were asked to apply online and parents browsed through a toy catalogue to choose their top three picks for each child, so volunteers could package and distribute them in a drive-thru event by appointment.
But in mid-November, with rising COVID-19 cases and new restrictions announced by Gov. Jay Inslee, that plan had to be scratched. Grocery store vouchers had just been mailed out before the new restrictions were announced, and now the plan is to provide families with additional vouchers they can use to purchase toys.
The problem is that the toy vouchers were not planned for, and are not funded. As a result, it’s unlikely that every family will be able to get a second voucher.
“We’re going to empty the bank accounts and do everything we can to get out those second vouchers,” Catholic Charities CEO Rob McCann said.
The goal is to raise $535,000 to fund the Christmas Bureau, the same as it has been for years.
Every year the community rallies to raise the money needed, with people both near and far sending in what they can. Retirees on a fixed income send enough money to buy a book or a toy. Children contribute their allowance. Businesses write four- or five-figure checks.
This year, more than ever, all donations are essential. With more people out of work and businesses struggling, people who are faithful annual donors might not be able to give as much, or give anything at all.
Toy and book buyers work all year to purchase items for the Christmas Bureau. All those purchases now sit in storage, unable to be delivered.
But those books and toys still have to be paid for and there are significant new expenses, including the toy vouchers, toy storage and postage.
Last year, donors gave a whopping $557,994.12, which was used to help 27,548 people in 7,973 households. Of those helped, 15,036 were children.
This year, 7,275 households have already applied for assistance online. A substantial number of those haven’t asked for help before.
The online application, which was originally set to close on Nov. 6 to allow volunteers time to sort and package toys, has been left open and is available to those who need a grocery voucher.
For the past 75 years, the Christmas Bureau has existed to provide a Christmas celebration to those in need. In many cases, children would not have a gift to open on Christmas Day without it.
This year, grappling with unexpected, unfunded expenses, the Bureau needs help more than ever.
“The Christmas Bureau brings a miracle to the community,” McCann said. “This year, we need a Christmas miracle.”
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