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Toys purchased for Christmas Bureau will wait until 2021 as charity raises money for vouchers

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 30, 2020

Lillian Joe, center, leaves the toy room with an armload of toys for her family in 2019 at the Christmas Bureau at the Spokane Fair and Expo Center.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Lillian Joe, center, leaves the toy room with an armload of toys for her family in 2019 at the Christmas Bureau at the Spokane Fair and Expo Center. (JESSE TINSLEY)
By Nina Culver The Spokesman-Review

The Christmas Bureau toy buyers had a busy year, just as they always do. But changes forced by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic mean the toys that started arriving this month will sit in storage as Bureau organizers hastily switch to handing out toy vouchers.

The Christmas Bureau, funded by community donations, is run by Catholic Charities, the Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review. This year’s fundraising goal is $535,000.

For a while this fall the plan was to have parents select their top three toys for each child from an online catalog and then pick up their gifts during a drive-thru event at the Spokane County Fairgrounds in December. Toy buyer Cheryl Taam said she helped process some of the online applications and is heartbroken that people won’t get the toys they selected.

“I saw so much of what people wanted,” she said. “They went through the catalog carefully. Now they’re not going to get their choices.”

The toys Taam ordered are still coming in. At least one order got stuck at the border between Vancouver, Britsh Columbia, and Seattle. Usually toy buyers try to wait and have the orders shipped in October and November so storage fees aren’t necessary, but Taam said that was difficult this year.

“The problem we had this year was availability,” she said. “If you can get it, you have to take it right away.”

What concerns Taam is that parents who get the toy vouchers will have to pay retail prices at the store. She orders directly from the manufacturers at wholesale prices and has fine-tuned her negotiating skills.

“The manufacturers have been very good,” she said. “Usually what they do is give us wholesale, with a discount, and free shipping.”

Some of those discounts have been as high as 50 percent. Taam has been able to pay $25 for a $100 toy in the past.

“We can negotiate because of our story,” she said. “The price they give me, I use as a starting price. We get such a good deal because I negotiate in volume.”

Taam said she focuses on buying high-quality items. Even then, the average price per toy is quite low.

“This year, the average is $15,” she said. “Some I spend more (on), some I spend less. It all depends on the toy. It all balances out.”

Buying toys is nearly an art form. Buyers have to make their best guess about what will be in demand by parents and kids. Even if something is popular for a year or two, that doesn’t mean it will remain popular.

“We have to change it up,” she said. “We try to get new toys, different companies.”

This year, Taam was able to order skates that could turn into roller skates or in-line skates. The size could be adjusted as children grow.

“They were awesome,” she said. “We found a new company for that.”

She also ordered Barbies in wheelchairs for the first time, and they were well-received based on the online requests.

“People were ordering them,” she said. “People have disabled kids.”

Taam said she’s disappointed that the toys she and others spent all year buying will sit in storage instead of going home to children in need.

“It just breaks my heart,” she said. “I want these toys under the tree for the kids, not in storage. I wish there was some way we could do it, but it doesn’t seem possible.”

“It just breaks my heart. I want these toys under the tree for kids, not in storage. I wish there was some way we could do it, but it doesn’t seem possible.” Cheryl Taam
Toy buyer
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

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