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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘Backbone of the Christmas Bureau’: Volunteers make everything run smoothly

Clint and Cheryl Branz, of Jim Custer Enterprises, are photographed at The Christmas Bureau. They’ve been longtime volunteers and set up all the pipes and draping for the event.  (Kathy plonka)
Clint and Cheryl Branz, of Jim Custer Enterprises, are photographed at The Christmas Bureau. They’ve been longtime volunteers and set up all the pipes and draping for the event. (Kathy plonka)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

The volunteers at the Christmas Bureau are the behind-the-scenes worker elves who make the annual event run as smoothly as a well-wound watch.

Each year, The Spokesman-Review, Catholic Charities and Volunteers of America collaborate to raise money to help families in need at Christmas. Each family receives a grocery store voucher, as well as a toy and a book for each child. There are also some extras, such as the teddy bears collected at the Spokane Chiefs’ annual Teddy Bear Toss, small wooden trucks made by local woodworkers and gloves for single adults.

It is a massive effort that runs year-round. As soon as the bureau closes its doors for the season, volunteer toy and book buyers begin searching for gifts for the next year.

Then, after months of work organizing, volunteers decorate the bureau space at the Spokane County Fairgrounds, set up tables and unload and unpack boxes and boxes of toys and books. Once the bureau is open, the volunteers direct people where to go, sign people in and help them find just the right book and toy to fit their child’s interests. They’ll even help people carry the gifts to their car.

At the heart of it all is a core group of leaders that returns year after year to make sure their sections of the bureau run smoothly. One of those is Clint Branz, who owns Jim Custer Enterprises with his wife, Cheryl. Branz is in charge of decorating the building to make it festive, and also hanging colorful drapes to separate areas and help direct the flow of traffic.

Eighteen years ago, the couple arrived at the Christmas Bureau to volunteer as toy baggers, but they saw that there was little Christmas décor. Tarps draped over PCV pipes and held down by sandbags served to separate areas. They decided that just wouldn’t do.

Branz said they realized the need lined up with their experience putting on events.

For years, the Christmas Bureau was tucked into a small building at the Spokane County Fairgrounds and space was at a premium. But last year, the event moved to a larger building right by the front gates, which allowed the bureau to expand while also giving Branz more to decorate.

His work is done before other volunteers arrive to unpack boxes of toys and books. But Branz doesn’t just decorate; he and his wife also still take volunteer shifts as toy baggers. He said it’s the best part of the Christmas Bureau.

“We get to visit with recipients,” he said. “We get to see what they’ve picked out for their kids. They’re all so very happy.”

Once the bureau is up and running, volunteers Paul Doming, Pinki Culbertson, Jay Walter and Natalie DuPree handle the intake of recipients. Kay Walter works in both intake and line control, handling any issues that arise as people wait in line. She is assisted in line control by volunteer Bonni Atkinson.

Head toy buyer Cheryl Taam is assisted by Lenny Kostelecky, Theresa Smith, Linda Solan and Jan House. Christy Folkins lines up the live entertainment for the bureau and oversees donated pajamas. Ralph Prouty and Dan Heinen head up the effort to keep the toy room restocked. The book section is overseen by volunteers Tana Carosella and Marilee Roloff.

The key operations volunteers are Fred Preston, Bruce Robange, Jack Kittilstved and Andy Caster. Ron Thaxton handles operations, as well as bagging. He’s assisted by bagging leader Glen Shaw.

Volunteer coordinator Brigid Krause said that while volunteers are crucial to the operation of the Christmas Bureau, they don’t seek recognition for what they do.

“Really, they are the backbone of the Christmas Bureau,” she said. “They don’t get a lot of recognition.”

Krause said she’s always amazed at the work the volunteers do.

“On set up day, we just sit back and watch,” she said. “They do it all. They go above and beyond. They help us through the year.”

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