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

‘They just want a little bit of home back’: Woman extends gift drive to Medical Lake residents impacted by fire

For nine years, Jodi Rivas has matched the Christmas wishes of Medical Lake children with donors who buy those gift requests.

Also a resident there, Rivas wanted to do more for her town this season, after the summer’s devastating Gray fire.

Rivas widened her informal, donor-backed drive to any neighbor who lost a home or had high costs because of the disaster, including adults without kids. This time, some donors covered entire families.

“Children were not a requirement this year, and you don’t even have to have lost a home,” said Rivas, 39. “What about those people who took a financial hit? They need help, too. What about people who were renting?

“I don’t want to overlook anyone.”

Each October, Rivas opens and monitors a Santa P.O. Box for children’s letters. She also oversees gift tags on wishing trees in businesses and has a Facebook page, Medical Lake Helping Hands, where parents who can’t afford the gifts can make requests for kids. Rivas uses the page for kids’ school supplies, Easter gifts and birthdays, as well.

This fall, Rivas admits she was worried a wider Christmas drive might receive big-ticket requests beyond what donors could afford. It wasn’t clear she’d get enough donors, because some regular contributors had suffered losses.

“Because we lost 242 homes in the West Plains, I’m thinking a large number of those were my donors,” she said. “I know that, because they had already adopted kids for back-to-school. They messaged me, ‘All my donations were in my home, and I lost my home.’ ”

But in recent weeks, what unfolded for Rivas sounds more like a Hallmark holiday movie.

“I got these wish lists, and it was lamps, extension cords, a snow shovel, cleaning supplies, warm socks, a jacket, a robe,” Rivas said. “My heart just melted. They just want the necessities. They just want a little bit of home back.”

Gift-givers contacted her from across the region. In prior years, 50 to 60 donors in mostly the West Plans covered the needs of about 65 to 75 children.

This year, the drive helped 20 families and 105 kids, Rivas said.

“That’s not 105 families, because some families have six kids, some four, two or one.”

As of Monday, she’d coordinated with 82 donors to fill such requests as blankets, warm clothing, snow boots, tools, toys and even garden supplies.

“I have families as far as Elk, Colbert, Liberty Lake, Spokane – you name it – who are buying gifts and meeting me in Spokane to give them to me this year,” she said.

For Christmas drives, she typically asks that kids’ requests be kept to three to five wishes, to give donors choices. Rivas receives the gifts unwrapped and arranges a pickup.

Some people meet her in town, and she also gives parents rolls of wrapping paper so the adults can prepare the gifts and see they are new and age-appropriate.

“We have some parents who can’t meet up, whether they’re working, they’re sick or their kids are sick,” Rivas said. She’ll then make a delivery.

And on special occasions, her 19-year-old son will accompany her dressed as the Grinch.

“He loves it,” she said.

Rivas created Medical Lake Helping Hands as a way to give back. Marking 10 years of sobriety, she said town residents supported her as a single mom in recovery from drug addiction. Early on, she didn’t have a car and used the bus.

“I had a very bad addiction and spent time in jail; that’s where I got sober,” Rivas said. “When I got out, and being sober, I had a rude awakening about the people I had hurt. I had an opportunity to leave Spokane and come out to Medical Lake. I knew that meant I would know nobody.”

But she found the sense of community she’d been missing.

“As scary as it was, my son and I made the move out to Medical Lake. People made sure I could get to appointments, meetings, have medication. They would deliver meals to make sure my son had something to eat. They were very supportive in my recovery.

“I had never in my life seen a town support somebody in that manner. When I saw the love, I just wanted to be a little part of this big thing.”

Her home was spared from the fire, but Rivas said she and other residents had costly living expenses when they had to flee while staying elsewhere, or later in winterized RVs.

She knows of neighbors who still live in an RV waiting to rebuild, or they’re sleeping on basement floors, she said.

“I get back in my car and cry, because I want to do more. I know they appreciate what I’m doing because they say, ‘Thank you,’ but if I could, I’d go out and build their homes.”

Rivas said another reason for the drive is to reach working parents and those who lack transportation to get to charities in Spokane offering holiday help.

The 2023 Christmas drive is nearly done, Rivas said, other than last-minute items. This year, she connected families in messages with donors, and they arranged deliveries between them .

“With the families, I connected them directly with their donors on a group chat that I’m on also, so I can make sure things are moving forward,” she said.”I think it was a good thing, because it allowed people to get a glimpse of what I’m seeing.”