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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Christmas Bureau volunteers getting ready to help this year’s online event

Handmade wooden trucks wait to be selected by clients of the Christmas Bureau in the toy room on the last day of the annual giveaway last year.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
Handmade wooden trucks wait to be selected by clients of the Christmas Bureau in the toy room on the last day of the annual giveaway last year. (JESSE TINSLEY)
By Nina Culver The Spokesman-Review

Christmas Bureau volunteers are being trained on a new computer system as they prepare for the first virtual event that gives food, toys and books to families in need.

The Christmas Bureau is a collaboration between Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review. Usually, recipients visit the Spokane County Fairgrounds over a two-week period in December to apply for and receive a grocery store voucher and a book and a toy for each child in the home. But this year’s event is virtual, with applications currently being accepted online for a limited time.

Volunteers and employees at Catholic Charities recently attended small, socially distanced training classes and will spend the next few weeks taking shifts processing the online applications.

In a recent training class, volunteers were taught how to navigate inside the new system. They used test data to get through the system and practiced entering information. Instructor Eileen Dempsey, who works in the IT department at Catholic Charities, encouraged the volunteers to keep track of any issues they might have. She noted that the database was built over the summer and issues may come up.

“Obviously we built this quickly and we’ll refine it,” she said.

Kathy Lackie, who has been a Christmas Bureau volunteer for more than 10 years, said she normally does intake. That usually includes sitting down with clients, getting their information and starting the process. She liked that job because she got to talk to the recipients.

“You get to meet the clients and hear their stories,” she said. “It gives you compassion for their lives and makes you appreciate your own as well.”

She’s disappointed that she won’t be able to meet the clients in person this year, but said she understands why changes had to be made to accommodate the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think it’s just the way it is,” she said.

Though her job is much different this year, Lackie said she didn’t think of not volunteering. “It’s part of my Christmas season,” she said.

Elena Beslagic started volunteering with the Christmas Bureau last year as a Russian translator. She signed up to help with applications this year because she thought she might be needed. If an application is incomplete, a volunteer will need to call the family. “I can help with the phone calls,” she said. “Last year I used my Russian a lot.”

She said she was very impressed with the Christmas Bureau last year. “I think it’s great,” she said. “This community helps lots of people, lots of children.”

She’s also glad the Christmas Bureau is moving forward this year, even though it looks a lot different. “They created a new way,” she said. “It’s wonderful, because people can still get the service.”

Though this is only her second year as a volunteer, she plans to keep coming back. “I will join next year and as many years as I can. I want to be a part of this.”

The Christmas Bureau applications are already being processed and over 2,000 people applied by Friday, said Christmas Bureau coordinator Sierra Heinen. “We’re going to approve as we go,” Heinen said.

All online applications must be received by Nov. 6. People can apply by visiting cceasternwa.org/christmas-bureau.

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. 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.

People who received assistance from the Christmas Bureau in 2019 will not have to verify their information again unless something has changed.

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 and book pickup at the Fairgrounds.

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