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

Volunteers Craig and Cathy Blankenstein jumped in when help was needed – ‘We love the Christmas Bureau’

Volunteers Cathy and Craig Blankenstein of Newman Lake have been training all year to become toy buyers for the Christmas Bureau.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

Christmas shopping can be a daunting task for everyone. For toy-buyers at the Christmas Bureau, it’s a full-time job.

As soon as the bureau ends each year, toy-buyers have only a few weeks’ break before it’s back to brainstorming, researching and ordering toys – thousands of them, a process that can take three to five months. For several months after that, it’s ensuring more than 10,000 toys actually make it, unharmed, to Spokane.

“There’s a lot more to this than people understand,” said Cheryl Taam, head toy-buyer with the bureau. “Most people come and look at the sheer volume of work that we do and get overwhelmed.”

But not Craig and Cathy Blankenstein, the bureau’s newest volunteer toy-buying trainees.

In 2022, the Christmas Bureau’s toy-buying team consisted of three people: Taam, Reesie Smith – who is supposed to be retired – and Lenny Kostlecky.

That meant a lot of work and few people to share the load.

“All of us during the first quarter of every year spend anywhere from 40 to 80 hours a week on this,” Taam said.

This year, the Blankensteins were there to help, and they plan to stay.

“I’ve had a lot of people who say, ‘You know, we just can’t handle this.’ Craig and Cathy said, ‘This is awesome, we can help and you just tell us what we need to do,’ ” Taam said.

Cathy Blankenstein said she found out about toy-buying during a Christmas Bureau tour Taam was giving to volunteers.

“I thought, ‘I would love to work with you because this is so cool and so fun,’ ” she said. Then she recruited her husband.

“This was a very good opportunity to see what it’s like to have this volume of things bought and coordinated, and the decision-making process is fascinating for us,” she said

Craig Blankenstein agreed.

“We love the Christmas Bureau,” he said, describing the joy of selecting a wide variety of toys that families in need can choose from to give to their children.

“You’ll have makeup kits, you’ll have art kits, you’ll have plush toys, you’ll have things you build,” Craig Blankenstein said. “We’re thinking about all these different parameters because basically when people walk in, that’s the population of Spokane.”

The Blankensteins have been retired for nine years and moved back to the Spokane area seven years ago after many years in Western Washington. Before that, Craig Blankenstein spent 38 years in the Air Force and Washington Air National Guard, followed by several years as a director of flight and maintenance training at Boeing. Before retirement, Cathy Blankenstein worked as career counselor for the Issaquah School District and, before that, as a phlebotomist, a medical professional trained to perform blood draws.

The Blankensteins both have philanthropic experience, including a few years at the bureau, but neither of them has experience in the retail sector. Yet already they have brought new ideas to the toy-buying team.

Cathy Blankenstein created a slideshow to give clients a preview of the toys as they wait to check in.

“It is overwhelming in the toy room,” she explained. “When you walk in, if you don’t have a specific toy in mind, there’s so much to pick from.”

The extra help the Blankensteins have brought as volunteer toy-buyers has been much appreciated.

“They’re awesome. I am so thrilled. We are blessed to have them,” Taam said.

Still, Taam said, for volunteers at the Christmas Bureau, toy-buying is a labor of love.

“I’ve seen more tears in my time at the Christmas Bureau than anything else, so it makes me continue every year,” she said. “Every year, I say ‘Oh, I’m so tired, I can’t do this,’ and then you just get rejuvenated when you go to the Christmas Bureau because it’s such a happy place.”

The Blankensteins said the same.

“You just have more empathy and understanding of our community,” Craig Blankenstein said.

“I think what they do is truly amazing. For many of the families that come through, this may be the only gift this kid gets under the tree, and it would break my heart to think that there are kids in this community that wake up on Christmas and they had nothing,” Cathy Blankenstein said.

That’s why Christmas Bureau toy-buyers make sure to buy quality gifts from name brands, including Mattel, Fisher Price and Lego, straight from the source.

“One of the saddest things I’ve heard was one child told his parent, ‘Wasn’t I a good boy? Why did Santa not give me as much as, you know, Johnny had got when he talked to Santa? Was there something wrong with me?’ And that broke my heart,” Taam said.

Roberta Simonson's reporting is part of the Teen Journalism Institute, funded by Bank of America with support from the Innovia Foundation.