Santa's helpers getting holiday letters answered

Posted: Sunday, December 16, 2001

Jolly Old St. Nick is getting by with a little help answering children's wish letters.

At least 45 first- and second-graders at Sears Elementary School are getting a reply to their messages to Kris Kringle this year, while the U.S. Post Office branches in Kenai and Soldotna have reported little action going to Santa's home.

Sears first- and second-grade teacher Lisa Atchley said her class of 45 pupils she team teaches with Jeanne Sorensen began writing their letters to Santa Thursday. She said this gives her kids a chance to direct some of the holiday energy they develop into productive activities.

"The kids get so antsy this time of year," Atchley said. "They're so excited they have a hard time focusing on academics, so we do this."

Nancy Cain Schmitt, spokesperson for the Alaska district of the U.S. Postal Service, said that, although she expects 60,000 letters addressed to North Pole this year, very few have come from the central Kenai Peninsula. Consequently, very few peninsula organizations have responded to the Postal Service's solicitations for volunteer Santas to answer children's letters.

"I took 100 (letters) to Alaska Press Women in Anchorage," Schmitt said. "But I haven't heard anything from the peninsula."

Laurel Pickering, supervisor for customer service at the Kenai Post Office, said she does not believe people seem very concerned about writing to the North Pole.

"We don't really get letters here to Santa," Pickering said. "There might have been four or five. I'm pretty sure they were from the same family."

She said the lack of letters is a blessing in disguise for her branch.

"No one has responded to that (call for volunteers), and luckily, that's OK. If we had been swamped with letters, it might be a different story."

Schmitt said she has had volunteers in the past from students who would follow the post office's format for replying to Santa wish lists. But this year, following the Sept. 11, tragedies, she got no bites.

"The children at North Pole Middle School aren't volunteering because their parents had a concern about the anthrax scare," she said. "That's a big chunk of our letter writers. All we can say is, if you have a concern, don't volunteer."

This concern for letter security and safety of the respondents should not be an issue with the Sears letters. They will be answered by Kristy Schmelzenbach's eighth-grade reading classes at Kenai Middle School. Atchley said her students have to follow specific guidelines and write as if its the real Santa responding.

"We don't tell them they're going to the middle school," Atchley said. "We have them tell something about themselves, ask a question of Santa and tell what they want for Christmas and why they want it. A lot of times, they ask questions like, 'how do your reindeer fly?' or 'how do you fit down the chimney?' or 'what if my house doesn't have a chimney?'"

The letters are delivered to the middle school, and the middle school students reply and return them the following week.

And what reaction does Atchley anticipate from her students?

"Oh my gosh!" she said. "Whenever they get letters back, they're so excited and shocked, especially if (the volunteers) answer their questions."

She said she has been pleased with the response she's seen from Kenai Middle schoolers in past years.

"Usually, the middle school kids tell kids they can't promise anything, but they'll try," Atchley said. "Some people say, 'we don't have lot of money and my parents can't afford presents.' The middle school kids are really gentle with those cases."

Schmelzenbach said this is her first time working with this project, but plans to devote significant attention to it.

"My kids have reading for two class periods a day," Schmelzenbach said. "We'll probably write for both periods one day."

Schmelzenbach enlisted the aid of Cheryl Schweigert's 25 eighth-graders to help reply to the Sears letters. Schweigert said her students jumped at the opportunity.

"They were ecstatic," Schweigert said. "They were asking, 'how do we respond to them?', 'what if we tell them the wrong thing?' I guess we're going to get some Santa lessons."

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