Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

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’s success hinged on dedicated volunteers: ‘I always thought it was a wonderful thing to do’

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the Jan. 15, 2004 edition of the Inland Register)

Karen Orlando of Catholic Charities returned to her office Dec. 22, having spent the previous two-and-a-half weeks working at the Christmas Bureau. Her job was expanded this year to include time as volunteer coordinator at the Bureau and she was at the fairgrounds all during its set-up and operation. Thanks to the Bureau, nearly 10,000 families and almost 16,000 children had a brighter Christmas.

Orlando had visited the Bureau a year ago but had never worked there before. “I never dreamed this (the Bureau) would be my piece,” she said. But its operation “went beautifully,” and she credited “key people with experience who took care of those pieces I didn’t know how to run.”

One very key person was last year’s chairperson, Sally Quirk. “She walked me through it,” Orlando said.

Orlando’s work for the Bureau is not finished, however. It is a year-round operation and she has a big notebook put together by Quirk with duties listed month by month. Part of Orlando’s job each week will be to keep tabs on what needs to be done.

For now there was paperwork aplenty as she wrapped up details of the 2003 Christmas Bureau and then settled back into her regular routine as Catholic Charities’ Special Events Coordinator.

As she learned the ins and outs of the Christmas Bureau, Orlando was surprised by the wealth of details, those little things that make the Bureau run smoothly. One was the contract for the fairgrounds. Everything is specifically stated, from the dates the place is needed to the hours it will be open to the heat that will be provided. Even though these details were worked out last year, they needed to be carefully checked. Another detail: “all the insurances.”

But Orlando’s major task at the Bureau was to coordinate the volunteers, a force of mostly retired and semi-retired, about equally divided between men and women. When people volunteer, they state on their application the area in which they would like to work and the days and hours they would be available. With that information, Orlando made up the work schedule.

She also had a list of volunteers who were available on short notice in case an assigned person had to cancel a shift. Each night during the Bureau’s operation, Orlando would check her phone messages and e-mail to see if changes needed to be made. She also acted as a troubleshooter wherever needed.

Each family who came to the Bureau received toys and books for their children, along with a food voucher. The children also received a bag of candy. Single persons who came to the Bureau received a food voucher and a bag of candy. One of Orlando’s goals next year is to see that single people also receive some kind of small gift.

Another goal is to find a way to obtain permanent storage space for the Bureau’s equipment and leftover toys. People have graciously loaned the use of storage units, Orlando said, with a provision that if they are rented, the Bureau must move its stored items. “We’d like to avoid that if we could,” she said.

Bureau chairman Bruce Butler was another first-timer, and he also had a great experience. “I had wonderful help,” he said, but there were “three things that really made a difference.”

One was Orlando, who did all the paperwork. “She checked on the volunteers and set up the positions before the Bureau even started,” he said.

The second thing was the computer system, which kept track of the toy inventory, of applicant families’ eligibility and also of the volunteers.

The third was Scott Phipps, the volunteer computer programmer from Avista Utilities, who spent over 300 hours setting up the software for the computer system. “There were problems in the software last year,” Butler said. “This year, from an operational standpoint, it went real well.”

Butler made a two-year commitment and will be chairman again next year. He also has a hope for the future.

“We bought more toys (this year), since we served more children.” In light of that, he would like to see an even stronger emphasis placed on providing toys.

Both Butler and Orlando saved their highest praise for the volunteers, all 250 of them. There was a larger number of people helping out this year, since Orlando had put out extra publicity about the need. There were several groups from parishes and a larger number of people came from The Spokesman-Review, Spokane’s daily newspaper, which is the Bureau’s major backer.

Students from Lewis and Clark High School returned for a second year. “They were just a godsend,” Orlando said. The teens helped with child care – “They were awesome with the children” – and also with clean-up when the Bureau ended.

But the adult volunteers were “awesome,” too. Mary Goodwin has worked at the Christmas Bureau eight years. “I’m retired and have the time. I want to help.”

Goodwin recalled when she first volunteered. “I started under Ken Trent (the man who founded the Christmas Bureau) when it was downtown,” she said. She was assigned in the computer area since, she said, “I knew how to type and I knew how computers worked.” When she started, the Bureau had four computers; now there are 19.

For Goodwin, the best part of the Bureau was “being able to help people who are in need of help.” Seeing all the volunteers again and “getting reacquainted” is another enjoyable element for Goodwin.

This was the third year for Kay Edmonds. She became a volunteer when former chairperson Sally Quirk asked her. “I needed that nudge,” she said, “but I always thought it was a wonderful thing to do.”

Edmonds’ teacher training was put to use in the book department as she helped parents select books for their children.

Working at the Bureau helped Edmonds think about the overabundance of gifts that many children have and about the real meaning of Christmas. “We’re helping the less fortunate,” she said. “It’s a wonderful service and I love to do it. I plan to (serve) again.”

Pat Cain is a long-time Bureau volunteer. She’s worked there “15 or 16 years.” She got involved when Mike Ryan, formerly of Catholic Charities, asked her husband, Jerry, if he would like to help. Said Pat, “I figured he would be delighted if I came along, too.”

Butler noted that the volunteers “get as much out of working at the Bureau” as the people they help. Orlando agreed. “Everyone was happy to be there. They were just a great group.”

She takes that thought one step farther: “The volunteers make the Bureau possible. They’re our biggest blessing.”

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