In her 70s, “Christmas Bureau icon” Fern Swecker used to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to make it to the Christmas Bureau each day by 9 .
Though Swecker had some physical challenges that slowed her down, every morning she would get herself ready, load her daily essentials into her little red cart and begin her wintry walk to the nearest bus stop.
Often, her route required her to transfer buses a few times, but ultimately she would land at Sprague Avenue and Havana Street and walk another half-dozen snowy blocks to the bureau.
“She was unbelievable; (the bureau) meant the world to her,” said Christy Folkins, who met Swecker at the bureau in 2001. “And then she had to do it again to go home, so she had to do everything in reverse, but the only difference was at night it was dark.”
The year 2022 was Swecker’s last one making early morning trips to the Christmas Bureau. She died on April 23.
“She’s going to be terribly missed by a lot of people,” Folkins said.
Swecker, a 27-year volunteer, was known as the Teddy Bear Queen. She was in charge of separating truckloads of teddy bears and other stuffed animals that the bureau receives each year from the Spokane Chiefs’ “Teddy Bear Toss” hockey game – when spectators shower the ice with thousands of stuffed animals of every shape and size after the Chiefs score their first goal.
Some of the fuzzy toys would go to the toy room, damaged or unsafe bears had to be thrown out, and many small stuffed animals were allotted to the adult-only families who came for a grocery voucher.
“Fern would separate them, and she’d separate them into piles. … That way, when people would come up to her booth, she could sometimes see if someone wanted something special,” Folkins said.
The booth Swecker ran was called the candy cane table, where adults without children could receive a candy cane and small plush toy or another small gift. Each year, the Christmas Bureau receives some donations that it can’t give to the children, such as adult-sized hats and scarfs.
“Fern just loved it, she just absolutely loved chatting with them, visiting with them, letting them pick out a little something special to take home with them,” Christmas Bureau Coordinator Heidi Meany said. “Otherwise, all they would get is a grocery voucher.”
The tradition of the candy cane table will continue, but now the booth has a new name: “Fern’s Corner.”
“It’s kind of in tribute to her,” Meany said. “She was such just such an icon at the bureau.”
Swecker loved Christmas. She often wore pins on her shirt with positive messages and Christmas themes. She had a holiday hat shaped like a Christmas tree that she wore to the bureau. When she bought that hat, she made sure to get a matching one for her cat “Oreo.”
“When she loved, she loved intensely,” Folkins said.
“She was just a volunteer person. … She was a volunteer at heart.”
This year’s Teddy Bear Toss game will take place at 6:05 p.m. Saturday at the Arena.
All the Christmas cheer the bureau brings to Spokane each year is made possible because of the generosity of the community. Recent donations of $11,453 have brought The Spokesman-Review Christmas Fund’s year-to-date total to $83,008.46. This year’s goal is $600,000.
Douglas Eden Attorneys made a donation of $8,000. On a letter signed by 13 people, they wrote, “A very big ‘Thank You’ to each of you at the Spokesman-Review Christmas Fund for your good work in making the holidays a special time for so many people. … By joining with others in Spokane, we want to spread holiday peace, joy and sharing in our community.”
Carol Lawton sent $1,000. Gregory Siverly donated $943. An anonymous donor sent $500.
James Houghton donated $300, writing, “Thank you for your charitable works!”
William and Deborah Pierce sent $250. Nelson and Nancy Heisey and an anonymous donor sent $100. Dorothy Luby gave $60.
Steve, Gail and Ben Quaid of Colbert donated $50, as did Edward and Susan Leach of Coeur d’Alene, and Marcia Ross and Marie Quackenbush.