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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Christmas Bureau: Late flood of volunteers helps keep it humming despite COVID-19

Volunteer Doren Forest stacks toys under a table for the Spokesman-Review Christmas Bureau last December. The Bureau has seen fewer volunteers this year, which organizers attribute to health concerns during the pandemic.  (DAN PELLE)
By NIna Culver The Spokesman-Review

Volunteers are the heart and soul of the Christmas Bureau. They spend countless hours buying and sorting toys, setting up the Bureau at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center and helping parents pick out toys and books for their children.

The Bureau, a joint project run by Catholic Charities, the Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review, cannot run without its volunteers. This year, however, the volunteers have been mostly sidelined as the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed organizers to a mail-only Christmas Bureau, mailing out food and toy vouchers to families to redeem at participating stores.

The pandemic has been a looming presence for nearly the entire year and that was reflected in the volunteer sign-ups when it was still hoped the Christmas Bureau would go on. Normally volunteer slots fill quickly, but that wasn’t the case this year, said volunteer coordinator Brigid Krause.

“I was getting concerned because our schedule was only one-half to two-thirds full,” she said. “Usually the schedule was full by the end of October.”

But the scarcity of volunteers wasn’t really a surprise. Seniors and those with pre-existing health conditions are particularly vulnerable to COVID, and that describes the Christmas Bureau volunteers to a T. The average age of the volunteers is 73 and some decided they couldn’t take the risk of volunteering.

“I heard from some people that they just couldn’t do it this year,” Krause said.

As the year progressed, planning switched from the usual in-person Christmas Bureau at the fairgrounds to a more limited, drive-thru version that would allow parents to pick up their preselected toys. But that version fell quickly to the wayside as the number of COVID cases increased and Gov. Jay Inslee announced new restrictions on public gatherings. A letter went out to volunteers announcing the mail-only Bureau.

“When we did notify people, they were sad, but they were very supportive,” Krause said.

Some volunteers were used early in the process to go through the thousands of online applications received requesting assistance. Some came down to the Catholic Charities headquarters to work in socially distanced pairs, while others worked from home. Some applications were incomplete and volunteers worked the phones to gather the required information.

As the applications flooded in, a call went out for more people to help.

“Everybody stepped up, even though some of them had been coming in every day,” Krause said. “People brought neighbors, they brought friends. They knew we had to do this.”

Many of those working on applications had traditionally volunteered to do intake at the in-person Christmas Bureau.

“Thank God they came in,” Krause said. “We would not have been able to do it if we didn’t have them.”

Dave McGann owns five Arby’s restaurants in Spokane. Every year for more than a decade he has donated enough soup, salad and sandwiches to feed all the volunteers at the Christmas Bureau every day for the two weeks the Bureau is open, which is about 80 people a day. This year, with the physical Bureau shut down, McGann donated Arby’s gift cards to be distributed to all the volunteers who helped process applications, Krause said.

“We can give them a little thank -you,” she said. “It’s just so humbling, this volunteer base we have.”

DonationsEvery year after the Christmas Bureau fundraising ends, late arriving donations continue to trickle in too late to be included in that year’s tally. The Bureau also receives a few donations throughout the year. The donations received at the very end of 2019 and the beginning months of 2020 come to $17,234.58, starting the journey toward this year’s fundraising goal of $535,000.

Ibex Flooring LLC, of Spokane, donated $5,500, writing “Thanks for all you do to help the community!”

An anonymous donor gave $3,000 via a fund managed by the Innovia Foundation. The Clarence Colby Memorial Fund donated $1,709.58. Steven Goebel sent $1,500. Nancy Evans gave $1,000. Wray Farmin, of Spokane, also gave $1,000.

Dena, Marc, Cole and Brooke (Kelly) Kaplan, of San Diego, gave $550 in honor of a longtime volunteer. “This is in honor of my father, Don Kelly, who gave his time, knowledge and humor to everyone involved in The Spokesman-Review Christmas Fund,” she wrote. “And he loved every minute … unless he was cold!”

Janet and John Peterson, of Spokane, donated $500. The Thomas E. and Barbara B. Richardson Giving Fund gave $250.

Sharon Matthews and Katherine West, of Mead, each gave $200 via PayPal. Lois and Oscar Thomason, of Spokane, contributed $200. The Stagaman Family Fund, managed by Schwab Charitable, contributed $200.

Mary and Paul Steenblik, of Spokane, donated $150, writing “Thank you for helping to make Christmas more merry for so many!” The Global Leaders against Destructive Decisions group at the Gonzaga Preparatory School collected donations from their fellow students and contributed $150. “Thank you for everything you do for the Spokane community,” they wrote. Terry Nakano, of Spokane, donated $109.

Richard Morris, of Spokane Valley, sent $100, as did Michael and Linda Geraghty of Spokane Valley. Les Whitbeck, of Liberty Lake, donated $100 via PayPal. An anonymous Spokane donor sent $100. Camilla Tilford, of Spokane, gave $100 via PayPal, writing “This gift is in honor of Suzi Stone’s birthday!” Joan Hathaway, of Spokane, contributed $100. An anonymous donor gave $100. Camilla Tilford, of Spokane, gave $100 via PayPal, writing “This gift is in honor of Kathleen Lackie’s birthday!”

Michael and Carol Nissley, of Spokane, gave $56. Kay Anderson and Helen Foster, both of Spokane, each donated $50. Karen Ssebanakitta contributed $25 via PayPal.

Stephanie Zoldak, of Spokane, gave $10, writing “Well, this isn’t much and it’s very late. You guys do such a wonderful thing for all the children. A small thank-you.” Judith Norton, of Coeur d’Alene, gave five separate donations of $5 each.