Weeks before Christmas, letters to Santa Claus start to pour into the Brainerd Post Office.
Some letters have stamps, others don't. Many are simply addressed to Santa at the North Pole. Some aren't really letters at all, but drawings of the presents children too young to read and write want this holiday season from St. Nick.
All the children know is that Santa Claus reads and responds to each and every one of their letters on his own stationery.
What they don't know is the name of Santa's elf stationed in Brainerd who makes sure their letters are answered.
At 40, Valda Vondell, Brainerd, is not a senior citizen, yet for the past 10 years she has volunteered to answer children's letters to Santa through the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, or RSVP, in Crow Wing County. The Brainerd Post Office saves the letters and an RSVP volunteer delivers them to Vondell. The post office also allows her to mail the Santa letters for free.
It was a desperately lonely time for Vondell when she was asked by RSVP to answer the Santa letters 10 years ago. Her dad had died years earlier and her mother had died that July of 1991. None of her siblings lived in the Brainerd area. She felt completely alone and was suffering from depression.
One of her first letters was from a 5-year-old girl who was very poor. All she asked for was a toothbrush. That letter -- and the many that followed -- touched her heart.
"It taught me the real meaning of Christmas," Vondell said. "It gave me something to look forward to. I feel loved being able to do this."
Vondell doesn't make any promises to children when she writes back to them. She tries to assure them that Santa did, in fact, read their letters and he will be at their home on Christmas. She also asks them to do something nice for someone else this holiday season.
Vondell said, growing up in Minneapolis, her family didn't have much money. So she would write her letter to Santa and looked forward to waking up Christmas morning and finding his return letter on the kitchen table.
She answers as many as 100 letters each Christmas, even those that arrive after the holiday is over. Sometimes she has become Santa. One child asked for a warm blanket for his paralyzed uncle who lived in a nursing home. Vondell made a few calls to area organizations, and the uncle received a blanket from Santa that Christmas.
Vondell is disabled and sells crafts and Avon products when she can. She likes to write stories and poetry.
"I'll never give it up," she said of being Santa. "It's so much a part of me now."
Sometimes the letters from children are pretty funny. They ask her if she feeds her reindeer enough food. Often, they concede that they've been naughty this year but want presents anyway.
"I've had letters where they come right out and say, 'I've been naughty,'" said Vondell, chuckling.
Vondell answers any Santa letters mailed through the Brainerd Post Office. Other area post offices that don't have a similar volunteer send their letters to Brainerd, according to the Brainerd Post Office.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.