A holiday tradition started by Palo Alto residents for Palo Alto residents that has been making the season brighter for those in need for more than 60 years could reach record proportions this year.
The nonprofit Christmas Bureau is trying to raise $120,000 by Dec. 1 to distribute to needy residents this season. This is the largest amount the Bureau has tried to raise. Why the big push? An escalating need.
Each year, the 14-member board of directors reviews an ever-growing list of referrals that now includes nearly 3,000 names compared to 138 in 1956. Each recipient must live within the Palo Alto Unified School District boundaries and be referred to the Bureau by a nonprofit organization or public services agencies.
In 2015, the Bureau distributed more than $100,000 to 2,840 recipients.
Since its inception, the Christmas Bureau has provided a way for residents to discreetly help families, seniors and others in financial need who live in surrounding neighborhoods by quietly collecting donations and distributing checks each December to those referred to the non-sectarian nonprofit.
There are no turkeys, toys or canned goods involved -- just a handwritten check that residents can spend on whatever they need.
"The whole process is very confidential and dignified," said Virginia Powers, who has volunteered as a board member since retiring from her human resources position at the school district 10 years ago. "We believe that giving a check is a very dignified way for parents to make their own decisions for their children, and for seniors to make decisions about themselves and what they need."
The amount of each check (which typically ranges between $30 and $40 per individual, but varies slightly from year to year depending on the number of recipients and how much the Bureau receives in donations) isn't a lot, but it's a godsend for many of the recipients.
"In Palo Alto, you don't know what's going on behind closed doors. All of a sudden you could have one or two parents who aren't working, and when you see them at church, out at school or out in the public world, you would never think that they are in dire circumstances," she said. "But there's overwhelming need here."
A collection of thank you cards and feedback from recipients over the years illustrate the many ways these donations have helped residents facing hardships: one woman was able to replace worn wheels on her wheel chair; another, who had been skipping doses of her medication to make it last through the end of the month, was able to refill her prescription; a mother who had fallen gravely ill was able to fulfill her wish of providing her children pleasant holiday with presents and less stress; and a mother and father were able to put something under the tree and on the table for their 10-year-old son.
"I feel strongly that the (Bureau's) policy of giving cash makes sense, and it is clearly well appreciated," said board member Ralph Britton, whose mother taught at Crescent Park Elementary School during the late 1950s and was exposed to a significant number of children who came from a trailer park in the district and had very little compared to their classmates. "These families really appreciated a little something at Christmas time."
Launched by a group of school nurses who wanted to make the holidays brighter for families living in pockets of poverty in the community who they met through work, the Christmas Bureau has evolved from a small number of donated gift baskets and toys to the distribution of thousands of dollars.
The Bureau has no paid staff, so it has very low overhead. Only 2 percent of funds raised goes toward stamps and other operational expenses. The rest is given to residents in need, according to a board report.
Most donations (92 percent) come from individuals, including past recipients after they get back on their feet.
"It's just amazing. I think these contributions are really heartfelt because it all stays in the community," Powers said.
Those interested in contributing can send a tax-deductible check made out to the Christmas Bureau to: The Christmas Bureau of Palo Alto, P.O. Box 51874., Palo Alto, 94303. Donations for this year must be in by Thursday, Dec. 1. Those received after that date will be used next year. For more information, or to donate through Paypal, go to christmasbureauofpaloalto.org.