From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Christmas Bureau brightened holidays for thousands

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the Jan. 17, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

Through Spokane’s Christmas Bureau 2001, over 10,300 low-income families and individuals received food vouchers, and gifts were given to 33,543 people, helping them to have a brighter Christmas.

Making that distribution possible were the joint efforts of four charitable organizations: Catholic Charities, Volunteers of America, the Salvation Army, and Second Harvest Food Bank.

The money used by the bureau comes from donations made to the Christmas fund drive conducted each year by the Spokesman-Review, Spokane’s daily newspaper. The fund has a long history — the first took place in 1955.

Donations to the 2001 drive came to over a half-million dollars, some $80,000 over the drive’s goal for 2001.

Catholic Charities offered special assistance at Christmas-time for years before the innauguration of the Bureau, and continued that ministry by becoming involved with the Bureau from the beginning. Msgr. Frank Bach, who directed Catholic Charities from 1964-1978, shared some memories of those early years.

“At first, each charity did its own thing” at Christmas, he said. After some years, the charities agreed to share a location, and people would only have to come to one place for holiday assistance.

Initially, the three charities — Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, and Volunteers of America — would simply take turns assisting those who came for help, each group taking every third person.

Administration “was a mess,” he said, “since each of us did it a little differently.”

The late Ken Trent at the Volunteers of America, who eventually came to be called “Mr. Christmas Bureau,” was the one responsible for the original three agencies coordinating their efforts. Now the organizations pool their networks of publicity and volunteers which makes a much more efficient use of their resources. Four years ago Second Harvest Food Bank joined the other agencies to help with the Bureau.

One long-term impact of Trent’s influence can be found in making candy available. It was his believe that every child should have a bag of candy at Christmas, and his tradition continues in the Bureau distributions today.

Although the Bureau has deep roots in Spokane history — in some ways, doing the same work every year for nearly 50 years — it also has undergone significant change.

Computers have streamlined the paperwork and make the sign-in process much faster — having the computers “made everything so much better for people,” Msgr. Bach said. This year saw a dozen computers at work; next year’s plans include 16, as well as training for the volunteers who will be using them.

Another new and very welcome addition were student volunteers from five area high schools. The students assisted with such tasks as child care, or carrying groceries and gifts back to people’s cars. “They were a great help,” said co-coordinator Sally Quirk, who appreciated their youthful enthusiasm. For their part, the teens were “very touched by the experience,” she said.

Another beneficial change was evening hours. The bureau was open two evenings during its two-week run. This proved to be highly successful, Quirk said.

For the second year, the Bureau was set up at the Spokane County Fairgrounds. The site has ample space for tables, computers, gifts, child care and parking. The Fairgrounds are a welcome development. In years past, according to Msgr. Bach, trying to find a place to set up the bureau was “...the most dreaded job of the director.”

Sally Quirk co-coordinated the Bureau with Jason Ghan of the Volunteers of America. Quirk said the two of them were in daily contact from July on. Directing the bureau’s operation means paying attention to a great many details, Quirk said. Ghan handled finances and computers.

A cadre of 135 volunteers worked at the bureau during its two weeks of operation this year. Some have been doing so for 20 years. “Once they do it (work at the bureau),” said Msgr. Bach, who was himself a volunteer, “they’re hooked.” About 85 volunteers are needed during a day’s operation.

In its 10 days of operation, the bureau helped about 1,000 people a day. Quirk said many of those assisted are working, but are not able to afford the extra expense of the holiday.

Those seeking help are asked for a statement of their incomes, and Quirk said these usually range from $400 to $500 a month. There are no other requirements. She said there was an increase of requests this year over Christmas 2000, and an especially large increase in the number of single adults asking for help with the holiday.

The homebound also received the Bureau’s help; it solicited names from the service agencies or other groups that help them.

The last day of Christmas Bureau 2001 was Dec. 21. The Fairgrounds building that housed the bureau was pretty quiet. Although people were still coming for food vouchers and to choose from the remaining toys and books for their children, the lines and the waits were short. Volunteers had already started packing up tables and chairs, getting ready to close down the Bureau for another year. It will spring to life again next December, helping the poor to have food and gifts, and candy, too, for Christmas.

(Persons interested in volunteering for next year’s Christmas Bureau are invited to call the Catholic Charities office in Spokane: (509) 358-4250.)

Inland Register archives

© The Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved