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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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The Christmas Bureau will be back this year at the Spokane County Fairgrounds with COVID-19 safety protocols

Handmade wooden trucks wait to be selected by clients of Christmas Bureau in the toy room in 2019.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Handmade wooden trucks wait to be selected by clients of Christmas Bureau in the toy room in 2019. (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Nina Culver The Spokesman-Review

Plans are underway to bring the annual Christmas Bureau program that gives food vouchers, toys and books to families back to the Spokane County Fairgrounds this year with COVID-19 safety protocols .

This is the 76th year for the collaboration between Catholic Charities, the Volunteers of America and The Spokesman-Review that raises money to provide food, toys and books to families in need each Christmas.

In recent years, everything has been distributed at the fairgrounds, but last year the pandemic prompted the Christmas Bureau to go virtual. Applications were submitted online, and food and toy vouchers were mailed to recipients.

This year, organizers are proposing a hybrid. Applications are currently being accepted online, but people will also have the option to apply in person at the fairgrounds during the operation of Christmas Bureau, which is scheduled for Dec. 4-16, excluding Sundays.

The Christmas Bureau will be in a newer, larger building at the entrance of the fairgrounds this year. People will enter through the central plaza, go through intake in Bay 2 and select toys and books in Bay 3.

“Our clients won’t have to walk as far, and everyone will be able to wait inside,” said Christmas Bureau Coordinator Sierra Heinen. “They have a better ventilation system for gathering bodies, and we’ll be able to spread out and socially distance.”

All precautions are being made to keep people safe, Heinen said. Groups will be spaced 6 feet apart as they wait in line. People are encouraged to come alone or in small groups because of capacity restrictions, and there will not be a child care area this year. Volunteers are required to be vaccinated, and both recipients and volunteers must wear a mask. “There are zero exceptions,” Heinen said.

In addition, recipients who come to the fairgrounds must provide proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID PCR test within the previous 48 hours.

Heinen said she hopes all the precautions will allow an in-person Christmas Bureau to go off without a hitch this year.

“One of the biggest reasons we shut down last year was to keep everyone safe, and safety is at the forefront this year as well,” she said. “We want to be together, too. Our volunteers are eager to get out to the fairgrounds again.”

Fundraising for the annual program will begin Nov. 26, and The Spokesman-Review will run daily stories through Christmas Day to provide updates on the effort.

People can visit www.christmasbureauspokane.org to apply. Families with children who sign up before Nov. 4 will be sent to a separate early bird line at the fairgrounds, where they will have to provide any documentation necessary, such as proof of address or proof of children living in the home. Those who do not apply in advance online will line up separately. Single people or couples without children are eligible to receive a food voucher, and previous recipients who sign up online will be mailed their food voucher.

“If we can find them in the computer, they don’t have to come to the fairgrounds,” Heinen said. “It’s really beneficial for seniors without children.”

Online applications are being done in order to speed up the lines at the fairgrounds, but it could also be key if things change and organizers are forced to shut down the in-person Christmas Bureau, Heinen said. “Having everyone’s application in the computer will be beneficial if things get bad and we have to shut down,” she said.

The open application was announced on Facebook Sept. 29, and the bureau got 85 applications in the first 45 minutes, Heinen said. There were nearly 600 applications submitted by Monday morning.

This week, organizers will send out emails and postcards to more than 11,000 households that have applied to the Christmas Bureau in the previous two years in an attempt to encourage people to complete an online application, Heinen said.

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