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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘We’re here to save the Christmas Bureau from COVID-19’

Volunteer Dean Duncan, left, offers a stuffed bear to McKindly Reagan, age 2, who is held by mother Chantal Reagan, center, in the bagging area at the Christmas Bureau last December.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
Volunteer Dean Duncan, left, offers a stuffed bear to McKindly Reagan, age 2, who is held by mother Chantal Reagan, center, in the bagging area at the Christmas Bureau last December. (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver The Spokesman-Review

The Christmas Bureau will change the way thousands of families in need receive toys, books and food as the COVID-19 pandemic upends one of the region’s most cherished organizations that tries to ensure every child has a present to open.

Instead of waiting in line at the Spokane County Fairgrounds in December to apply for and receive assistance, families will be asked to apply online in October and then schedule a drive-thru pickup of their gifts in December.

“It’s a challenge for all of us,” said Christmas Bureau Coordinator Sierra Heinen.

“We’re here to save the Christmas Bureau from COVID-19.”

The annual event is a collaboration between Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review. The newspaper helps raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to distribute to the charities, who buy the toys and books and pay for the food vouchers given to each family. An army of volunteers does everything from buying toys to helping families during the Christmas Bureau.

Perhaps the biggest change this year is the requirement that families apply for assistance online by Nov. 6. Nearly 8,000 families received help through the Christmas Bureau in 2019 and emails announcing the changes were sent to those who provided email addresses. A postcard will also be sent to each family who was helped last year.

“We know people have probably moved,” Heinen said. “We’re pushing it really hard on Facebook.”

People can apply by visiting Applicants will not be required to provide proof of income, but must provide proof of residency and proof of the number of children in the home. A service provider verification form, which allows a school or day care to verify the children in the home, is also available online.

Families who applied in 2019 will not be asked to reverify their information unless something has changed, Heinen said. “It will be a more expedited approval process,” she said.

An online toy catalog has been placed on the website for parents to browse. They will be asked to pick their top three toy choices for each child.

Heinen said every effort will be made to select one of those choices or something similar. Parents will also be asked what type of books their child likes and whether they are an eager or reluctant reader.

Parents will be asked what time of day and day of the week works best for them to pick up their gifts, and that will be taken into account when scheduling pickup as much as possible, Heinen said. The drive-thru is designed to be a quick process in order to accommodate the thousands of families expected to sign up.

“I’ve timed it down to the minute,” she said.

Those who do not have access to the internet can call Catholic Charities at (509) 358-4250 to get assistance filling out the application over the phone.

Applications for the Christmas Bureau are already being processed. After a family is approved, they will be notified via email.

Grocery store vouchers, which range from $15 to $30 based on family size, will be mailed the week of Nov. 16. A letter will be included with the voucher stating the assigned date and time for toy pickup at the Fairgrounds.

Assistance is also available for single individuals, who will receive a grocery store voucher of $15.

It’s important that recipients apply by the Nov. 6 deadline, which was set to allow volunteers time to sort and package the toys and books into gift boxes.

In 2019, donors from Eastern Washington, North Idaho and places around the globe donated $557,994.12 to the Christmas Bureau, besting the goal of $535,000. The goal for this year’s effort has not yet been set as organizers look at increased costs due to PPE, Heinen said. This year’s official fundraising effort will start the day after Thanksgiving and will include daily stories in The Spokesman-Review naming each donor and giving updates about the Bureau.

Last year’s effort helped 27,548 people in 7,992 households. Heinen said organizers are preparing for even more applicants this year.

“We know the need is going to be greater this year because of the economy,” she said.

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