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A great opportunity to give

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Firefighters, EMTs and other first responders regularly encounter the sort of pain and suffering that most of us are fortunate enough to see only on rare occasion.

That’s one reason why Lt. Janet Eckenberg, an advanced EMT with the Mattawa Fire Department, looks forward to delivering gift bags to hundreds of elementary school children each December.

Just to see their faces when Santa Claus comes in, it’s pretty precious,” Eckenberg said recently.

Her department is able to deliver gift bags to students and other items to families in her community thanks to the generosity of those who give to the Association of Washington Business’ annual Holiday Kids’ Tree Project.

They’re able to include Santa in the delivery because, well, someone in the department has a North Pole connection.

Each year since 1989, AWB members — individuals, small business owners, company executives, lobbyists and others — have contributed to the program, which raises money that’s distributed to rural fire departments around the state.

Last year’s project raised more than $23,000, an amount we hope to surpass this year.

To help distribute the money, AWB is once again partnering with rural fire departments. Firefighters and emergency responders see the needs in their communities every day, making them uniquely qualified to make decisions about what to buy and how to distribute it.

This year’s partners include 15 departments from seven counties on both sides of the Cascades. In addition to the Mattawa Fire Department in Grant County, the counties are Grays Harbor, Lewis, Mason, Spokane, Thurston and Walla Walla.

For the last few years, the mostly volunteer Mattawa Fire Department has chosen to give out gift bags to as many students as possible, rather than spend the money on a smaller number of more expensive items, Eckenberg said.

They start buying the items for the bags in November, before the Holiday Kids’ Tree Project is complete. To start shopping, they take out a loan from the volunteer association and repay it in December when they receive the check from the Holiday Kids’ Tree Project.

I’m a budget shopper and there are a lot of good deals in November,” Eckenberg said.

They fill the goody bags with coloring books, pencils, toys and candy. There are a lot of low-income students at the school, Eckenberg said.

For some of them, it may be the only thing they get,” she said.

Her department began participating in the program a few years ago, and it not only led to gift bags for children, but it also inspired the emergency responders to help senior citizens, as well, Eckenberg said.

They give out Fred Meyer gift cards, blankets and cookie plates to seniors in the Mattawa area.

What the AWB has done has given us more of a focus for the Christmas holiday season,” she said. “It started the ball rolling.”

The ball really started roll back in 1989 when a small group of AWB members began the tradition that became the Holiday Kids’ Tree Project. It’s a wonderful program that I’ve been privileged to watch grow over the last quarter century.

The 2013 AWB Holiday Kids’ Tree Project culminates Dec. 6 with a public tree-lighting ceremony at the Capitol in Olympia. The tree will be donated by Port Blakely Tree Farms, an AWB member company. Officials from participating fire departments will join in the festivities.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce. He is retiring at the end of the year after 28 years with AWB, including nearly 26 as president.