Community Notebook: Palo Alto nonprofit expands 61-year tradition

Christmas Bureau hopes to reach record number of recipients

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


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


2 people like this
Posted by Think Outside The Box
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 28, 2016 at 12:24 pm

Unfortunately, lots of people who are in need go unnoticed, because they are not connected to the school district or a non-profit who must recommend the person in need for a Christmas Bureau donation. While a great gesture on part of the Christmas Bureau organization, perhaps, they should encourage requests from individuals or neighbors who know of people in the community who need financial assistance over the holidays. The Christmas Bureau can create an-online form to get requests outside of their traditional ways via non-profit agencies or the PAUSD. There are many suffering economically in this community, and there is no way for them to be included in the Christmas Bureau data base under their current methods.

1 person likes this
Posted by MH
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 28, 2016 at 10:21 pm

I once received an unexpected check from the Christmas Bureau in 2010. My daughter had started at Terman Middle School and I asked to pay for the science camp in 3 installments. I was undergoing cancer treatment and had high health insurance deductible so just didn't have cash upfront. Not only was the science camp subsidized but then a few months later I got the check from the Christmas Bureau. It was such a wonderfully kind and thoughtful gesture at a time that was so difficult for my daughter and I. To this day I am still terribly grateful!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Couple brings Chinese zongzi to Mountain View
By Elena Kadvany | 0 comments | 6,018 views

Don't Miss Your Exit (and other lessons from an EV drive)
By Sherry Listgarten | 9 comments | 1,829 views

Goodbye Food Waste!
By Laura Stec | 4 comments | 1,576 views

"Better" Dads and "Re-invigorated" Moms: Happier Couples
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,225 views

The kindness of strangers
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 518 views


Register today!

‚ÄčOn Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More