New Westminster Christmas Bureau creating Christmas smiles

Andrea Crawford and her 13 month-old daughter Kiera play with some of the toys she
Andrea Crawford and her 13 month-old daughter Kiera play with some of the toys she's received from the Salvation Army's Christmas Bureau in New Westminster. Crawford has been off her waitressing job for a year as she raises her daughter but she's preparing to return to school in the new year to become a dental receptionist.

A woman who had taken on the herculean task of adopting a boy with fetal alcohol syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder wanted to get something special for her son this Christmas but couldn’t afford it.

She walked into the New Westminster Christmas Bureau earlier this week and spotted a keyboard in the back of the toy room. Her son had been taking music therapy, which has been a tremendous help to him, so she asked bureau coordinator Lyn Stokes, “can I have the keyboard?”

“Yes, if it will help him, definitely,” came the reply.

The woman was so thrilled she hugged Stokes and all the rest of the volunteers at the storefront at 616 Sixth St.

The bureau is run by the Salvation Army and is part of the Lower Mainland Christmas Bureau network.

This is the 12th season with the bureau for Stokes, 60, who knows what it’s like for the clients because she raised children on welfare.

“One lady walked through who had no idea what the Christmas bureau was,” says Stokes. “She was very thankful, because she said she had nothing. She just didn’t know what to do about Christmas. On income assistance they don’t get a lot of extra. She thought she would have to go to the dollar store and get dollar store stuff. But we have toys that are much more than that.”

When the clients come, Stokes gives them a grocery gift card to Safeway before directing the parents behind a Christmassy curtain to pick out gifts for their kids. The bureau used to build hampers with food, toys and clothing but so much of it went unused and the process was labour intensive.

“It helps to put some of the dignity back in the process because the parents know far better what their children will like. It’s a little less like a handout and more like a hand-up,” says Salvation Army Capt. Dave Macpherson. “Gift cards for groceries are much better because then they can get the things they like for their family.

“We’ll serve about 500 kids in toys in the season, and a couple of hundred families.”

Behind the curtain are shelves along both walls, one full of toys for girls, the other for boys. At the back is a baby table and at the front is stuff for teens.

In between are stocking stuffers for kids of all ages and genders. While the parent shops the kids stay out front with Stokes who has a bunch of big Christmas dolls and a snowman singing Let It Snow to amuse the youngsters.

Another woman came in earlier this week with two kids around 10 years old. After being unemployed for a while, she had just got a retail job, and even though she qualified she didn’t want to pick anything out.

“I shouldn’t take anything,” she said.

“It’s OK,” volunteer Ira Naesgaard said, and then gave her a hug before eventually convincing the woman to pick out a couple of presents for her kids.

“We just see the pressure taken off of their faces. It really makes a difference,” says Naesgaard.

Andrea Crawford, a single mother of one-year-old daughter Kiera, found it difficult swallowing her pride and going to the bureau. Before giving birth she was a waitress making most of her money off of tips. But maternity leave doesn’t compensate mothers for that loss of income even though the tax collector dings them for it when they make it.

“It’s just tough to have to do it,” says Crawford, who plans to return to school in January to become a dental receptionist. “[But] my ego’s not more important than her. When you need help, you need help, you just have to do it.

“I think it’s great that they’re there.”

Crawford had bought a mini-guitar for her daughter’s first birthday and Kiera loved it, so this time she picked out a little piano set at the bureau.

“She’ll have fun with it,” says Crawford. “She’s a fun little thing, always smiling and happy.”

And creating smiling faces at this time of year is what the Christmas bureau is all about.

• Stokes says it’s still possible for New Westminster residents to register for the bureau by calling 604-868-7672.

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