By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 2000
ST. PETERSBURG -- "Mommy, Mommy. It's him!"
Santa! On the phone. And, ringing merrily in the background, could those be sleigh bells?
Sally Marvin still smiles when she recalls her daughter's exclamation and wide-eyed wonder when Santa called her home three Decembers ago. Jennifer was 6.
Those memories keep the mother returning as a volunteer to the North Pole substation that the city's Recreation Department mobilizes each year on behalf of Santa Claus.
"I think this is my third year doing this," Ms. Marvin said of the program that calls hundreds of children each Christmas season.
"The first year, I had them call my daughter and that just hooked me when I saw her face, when I heard her reaction. She heard the bells and she knew it was Santa," Ms. Marvin recalled.
Monday evening, jolly shouts of "Ho! Ho! Ho!" jingling sleigh bells, thumping reindeer and chattering elves reverberated through the substation at 1400 19th St. N. Lights twinkled up and down corridors. Decorations filled the lobby, the aroma of delightful treats wafted through the building, and people talked and laughed. Santa's helpers stood in for St. Nick at this substation in town and helped him out at this busy time of year. It couldn't be pinned down, but the rumor was that Santa was monitoring them to make sure they said the right things.
"It's fun. . . . It's easy to be Santa behind the phone," said Tom Skirchak, a recreation supervisor in special programs who has been one of the voices of Santa for three years.
"I think it's great for the kids. They are so enthusiastic."
In his office nearby, Mike Jefferis, another recreation employee, turned to his wife, Carrie.
"You got your bells? Dial 9 to get out," he said, as they got ready to make their calls.
That evening, Mrs. Jefferis, a second-grade teacher at Melrose Elementary School, cheerfully switched careers.
"This is the North Pole operator with a call from Santa," she said. "Is Dan there?"
"Ho! Ho! Ho!" boomed Santa, taking the phone. "This is Santa."
After a minute or two of conversation involving Christmas lists and comments from Santa about Dan's first baseball season, it was time to say goodbye.
"Dan, Santa has to call some more boys and girls," Jefferis said.
As he hung up, Jefferis smiled and said, "He was really excited."
The little girl he called next was awe-struck by Santa's knowledge.
"Have you been taking care of Snickers, Hershey and Twix?" he asked of her ferrets.
"How did you know?" the child said.
"Santa knows everything," was the calm reply.
And he does, with a little bit of help.
Amy Cady, a recreation leader in the Recreation Department, said she distributed 31,000 Santa's Calling forms to local elementary and preschools in mid November. Of those, about 1,400 were completed by parents and returned to the department. This year, with the help of volunteers from Verizon, All Children's and Edward White hospitals, Bayfront Medical Center, the Optimist Club, Pinellas County Schools, the St. Petersburg Thunder wheelchair basketball team and Eckerd College, each child will be called.
"It's a great program," said recreation supervisor Linda Paukstys.
"Volunteers are always the key," she said, adding that the 14-year-old program had to take a hiatus three years ago because of a shortage of willing elves.
"Just two hours of making children happy. What better gift can you give for Christmas?" Ms. Paukstys said.
Ms. Cady said she began planning this year's operation in October.
"You're in a constant struggle to pull in volunteers," she said. "We are constantly looking for more volunteers to make sure we meet the needs of all the kids."
That sometimes means paying special attention to information provided on the Santa's Calling forms. Sometimes there are notations that parents are getting a divorce or have died. Monday night, a call was to be placed to a child with Down's Syndrome, another who speaks mostly Spanish and another who has just learned to tie his shoelaces.
"I did notice one form came through where the mother said to ask the kid what he wants for Christmas, because he won't tell anyone," Ms. Cady said.
Despite the work involved in organizing the program, Ms. Cady, 25, said she is enjoying her role as Santa's special helper.
She counts among her rewards the faxed note from a parent who said, "I'd like to thank you for making two children very happy and excited! Their faces were priceless when they received their phone call from Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus. What a wonderful program you have."
Jessica G. wrote, "Merry Christmas, Santa. I love you."
And from Brandon came this eager message, "Dear Santa, I can't wait to talk to you on the phone."
Monday evening as they got ready to make their calls, Ms. Paukstys offered tips to the volunteers.
"Have fun, but try to keep the calls short and sweet. Keep it rolling as much as you can," she said.
"A couple of reminders for the (North Pole) operators. If for some reason you reach more than one person, a neighbor visiting, go ahead and speak to them. . . . On the subject of pagers, we do not page," Ms. Paukstys said.
And it was off to work.
"Rudolph, get down off the wall," Alexis Shuder shouted to an imaginary reindeer as Bob Kuehn spoke to a young child.
"It's awfully cold here in the North Pole," he said. "But it keeps my elves working real fast."
And so it went on. For four hours Monday, some working in two-hour shifts, the calls went out. It was a happy night for more than 500 children -- and those who volunteered to help.
"I like just hearing the children's reaction. I think that's the best part," Jefferis said the next day.
"I had one child say, "If you're Santa Claus, tell me the name of your reindeer.' Thank goodness we had the cheat sheet and I was able to give him all nine names," he said, laughing. Even Santa sometimes forgets.
"Some of them are so quiet, they don't say a word," said Ms. Paukstys. "We had a little girl ask Santa if he would wake her when he got there."
To get on the mailing list of volunteers to help Santa next Christmas, call St. Petersburg's Recreation Department at 893-7441.
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