EVERETT — Emily Parsaoran wasn’t sure if she would make it through the door.
She had been sitting outside in a long line for 11 hours, hoping to get into Christmas House.
She knew the charity would serve only 195 families on Friday, its first day open. She was near the sign that reminded her of that.
She also knew dozens of people were in front of her — maybe even 195. She had to take her chances, though. Her husband works at an AM/PM convenience store. She cares for their six children. They needed help this Christmas.
The temperature dropped to 30 degrees overnight. She was cold and surrounded by anxious strangers. She had every reason to be upset. She wasn’t.
“It’s kind of exciting,” she said. “You get to meet new people and stuff, and know they’re going through the same thing you’re going through.”
Christmas House expects to have a record-setting year as it celebrates its 29th anniversary.
The nonprofit organization will spend 15 days this month giving away tens of thousands of gifts to low-income Snohomish County families.
Rick Kvangnes, president of Christmas House, said the charity is prepared to serve 3,900 families, 600 more than last year.
The charity works only with county residents in households at or below 150 percent of the poverty level. That’s an annual income of $33,075 for a family of four.
The recession has pushed many people into that range, something apparent this year.
Usually, people start lining up for Christmas House’s Friday opening at 5 p.m. Thursday. This year, the first family got in line at 10 p.m. Wednesday, setting up a tent for the long wait.
D.J. Morgan, 16, was keeping his sister Nikia White company at the front of the line. Both were shivering.
White, 18, just had her first child, a girl, now 6 months. She and the baby’s father are unemployed, living in a home with seven other people. Money is tight.
She got in line at 7 a.m. Thursday.
“There’s not enough to give her the Christmas I want to give her,” White said.
White and her brother talked to pass the time. Sonja Stark, 30, brought the game Yahtzee.
The mother of three has come to Christmas House for the past 10 years. While it can be difficult sitting in the cold for hours, it’s worth the effort.
“Every Christmas, when someone says, ‘Thank you Santa, thank you Santa,’ I know I did something good,” Stark said.
Christmas House was founded out of a garage in 1981. About 100 children received presents that first year.
Every year, it has grown, Kvangnes said. It now fills the gymnasium at the Boys &Girls Club in Everett.
The charity runs with military-like precision. Board members consult charts in neat binders and answer questions from volunteers — an army of 650 people last year.
Families arrive at an assigned shopping time and sit with a volunteer, who verifies their income level, place of residence and that they have custody of their children.
The family member then walks through the gym with another volunteer, who helps them choose a sack-load of gifts. The charity gives away new items only: skateboards and Wilson basketballs, Hannah Montana dolls and make-up kits.
The volunteers enjoy the work, returning year after year. Most are quick to share that one story of the mom or dad whose gratitude warmed their own hearts.
Take Bill Houghton, who has volunteered for five years. His first year, he helped carry gifts out to a car for a father of four shortly before Christmas.
“He gave me a big hug and shook my hand, the tears were going down his face,” Houghton said. “I had a lump as big as a softball in my throat, and I’m not an emotional person.”
The work can be humbling, something Kvangnes was reminded of Friday morning, as he gave out tickets to assign shopping times.
He ran out halfway down the line, near the sign noting that 195 families would be served. He told the hundred or so still waiting they needed to come back another day, reminding them the charity pledges to serve everyone by Dec. 21, its last day of operation.
Still, people were upset. Some complained of line-cutters. They had been awake for hours. They were cold, tired and not quite sure when to get back in line for Saturday’s tickets.
But not Emily Parsaoran, 29. The mother of six held a yellow ticket. It may as well have been gold. She kissed it, again and again. She would shop for her six children at 11:24 a.m.
“Oh my God,” she said. “We did it.”
Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455, firstname.lastname@example.org.