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Making Holidays Special: The Inspiring Story of Spokane’s Santa Express

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Making Holidays Special: The Inspiring Story of Spokane’s Santa Express

News story by John McCallum | FāVs News

Longevity is generally an indicator of success for most organizations.

In the case of Spokane’s Santa Express — the children’s gift charity benefiting the Vanessa Behan family crisis shelter — it’s not just the 31 years they’ve been in existence that’s a sign of success. It’s the multigenerational appeal that keeps bringing people back through its doors every year — as customers and as volunteers.

Take Hayley Lydig, for example, who was born the same year Santa Express started — 1992. Lydig said she remembers her parents bringing her to Christmas shop at Santa Express when she was a child at one of its previous locations on the Skywalk level in the former Crescent Department store downtown.

Today, not only does Lydig bring her children to Santa Express, but she also has volunteered as one of the elves assisting the kids shopping. And, she’s now entering her seventh year as director of the program.

“Seeing the multi-generational thing is so cool,” Lydig said.

Good Arising from Family Tragedy

Lydig said Santa Express began as a project of a group of women in the Junior League of Spokane who wanted to do something to support the Vanessa Behan crisis shelter. The organization was founded five years earlier in 1987 as a community response to the tragic death of a child at the hands of domestic abuse.

Two-year-old Vanessa Behan died on Jan. 9, 1982, due to a ruptured bowel caused by a blow to her abdomen. An autopsy revealed she had suffered previous injuries that included a fractured arm, head trauma from having her hair pulled and twisted, a fractured skull and cigarette burns. These stemmed from parental abuse attributed to her mother and stepfather, who were never convicted for killing her.

Angry and saddened at her death, a group of Spokane residents and businesspeople undertook a grassroots effort to create, according to information on the Vanessa Behan website, “a safe place where parents could bring their children any time they are having difficulty providing them with safe and nurturing care.”

Since then, the organization has provided help for more than 103,000 children and their families. Vanessa Behan’s primary services include 24-hour childcare for infants and children under age 13, parent education, crisis counseling for parents and referrals to other community agencies.

To help financially support this mission, Santa Express was created. It is now run by the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery Auxiliary Board.

“And it’s for such a good cause and addressing a huge need in Spokane,” first-time volunteer elf Dayna Emerson said.

Santa Express Teaches Giving and Budgeting

The first thing to remember about Santa Express is it’s all about the kids. Children ages 4 – 12 do all the gift shopping — and parents aren’t allowed to peek at what they buy.

The kids are paired with an elf volunteer, who helps them fill out a page on a clipboard with information such as how much money they have budgeted or gifts and who they are buying for.

Once that is filled out in the front of the store, and using some shopping parameters set by the parents, the child and elf disappear behind a curtain, into the back where gifts ranging in price from $1 to $12 are neatly stacked and displayed on tables.

The elves help the child with their shopping by pointing out various items in the different price ranges. They ask them questions such as “Does your dad like football? What’s his favorite team? Does grandma like to drink tea or coffee? What’s your sister’s favorite color?”

There is also a station for wrapping the gifts — with a little elf assistance — once the shopping is completed.

Lydig said about 3,500 kids come through Santa Express during each year’s four-week run. This year it is located in the Spokane Valley Mall inside the east entrance just passed Macy’s near the escalators. It ends on Dec. 22.

Not only does it help support Vanessa Behan — usually raising about $100,000 each year — but it also provides some lessons to the kids.

“They learn something about budgeting and handling money,” Lydig said. “It also encourages learning about gift giving, that it’s important to give as well as to receive.”

Providing a Unique Shopping Experience

The gifts at Santa Express are as different as the shopping experience. Lydig said they stay away from anything using electronics and more modern toys.

Instead, the toys are more “old school” items such as puzzles, yo-yos, toy cars, planes and boats, stuffed animals and other fun items.

“We try not to do things that are more mainstream,” Lydig said. “They’re (Santa Express toys) more traditional fun, imagination toys.”

Items for adults include mugs for coffee or tea, decorations, candles, hand sanitizers, pocket flashlights and key chains. But that doesn’t mean grandpa wouldn’t also like a metal model of a 1969 Corvette as a Christmas gift.

Lydig said getting gifts for Santa Express each December is a year-long endeavor. It even involves traveling to various locations such as the annual gift store market in Seattle in July. The store is helped considerably with this by annual sponsors that help underwrite the costs of gift purchases.

santa express
While only kids are allowed in the back, adults can shop the Santa Express boutique for gifts any time. / Photo by John McCallum (FāVS News)

And recently these gifts have expanded to adults with the addition of the Santa Express Boutique. Auxiliary Board President and 15-year volunteer Linda Seghetti-Moholt said the boutique began several years ago when they were located in the River Park Square Mall. The move to the Spokane Valley Mall allowed for a larger space for the store and a more elaborate boutique.

“While the kids are shopping the parents can shop in the boutique,” Seghetti-Moholt said. “We also get regular shoppers who come, buy something and then sometimes make an additional donation when they see who it supports.”

Santa Express Elves Are the Key

While the kids are the focus of Santa Express, it’s the elves who keep things running as smoothly as possible.

Lydig said they begin lining up volunteers around the beginning of October. Over 500 individuals sign up for 3 – 4 hour shifts over the four weeks of operation. Many are returning volunteers from previous years.

A number of volunteers come from corporations or small businesses. Some encourage their employees to engage in volunteer work and sometimes pay them for their time. Lydig also said they have “tons” of volunteers coming from area high schools.

Other volunteers are people who have been to Santa Express in the past as parents and children. That is the case with Emerson and her daughter Mandy Ambrose, who were volunteering Friday afternoon, Dec. 8.

Ambrose said she remembers coming to Santa Express as a kid with her mom and two other siblings and what a fun experience it was. She began bringing her children, and a couple of years ago decided to volunteer with a friend as elves.

This year, she thought of Emerson — who also volunteers with Meals on Wheels.

“So, I reached out to my mom and we’re doing a family thing,” Ambrose said, adding they will be back for a shift on Santa Express’s final week of 2023.

Santa Express is open Monday – Friday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m.

John McCallum
John McCallum
John McCallum is a freelance writer living in Liberty Lake. A graduate of Eastern Washington University with degrees in Journalism and Radio-Television, John spent 21 years at the Cheney Free Press as an award-winning staff reporter, editor, managing editor and photojournalist covering everything from government to education, sports, religion and current affairs. He is a member of Spokane’s Knox Presbyterian Church and has served as a church leader on session and participated in worship through a variety of roles. He has made six mission trips to Guatemala as a member of the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest Guatemala Task Force. John enjoys time with his wife, Sheila, and their Dachshund, Chili, road trips — especially the Oregon Coast — along with running, biking and kayaking.

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