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About Utah: Here's the scoop! Santa is a woman named Kathy

Published: Sunday, Dec. 19 2010 12:14 a.m. MST

I found Santa's workshop the other day. It wasn't what I'd expected. Or where.

It's not at the North Pole. It's in a strip mall three doors down from a Smith's grocery store in Sandy. Next door is H&R Block tax services. On the other side is Little Caesars Pizza.

And Mr. Claus, he's — how shall I put this —he's a she.

He goes by the name — pseudonym? — of Kathy Pettey, and his elves include Jo Caldwell and her husband, Lynn, and a jolly woman named Patty Rowley, along with a bunch of other helpers who were coming and going so fast I couldn't catch all their names.

Oh, and the elves, they aren't short. They're regular size, like you and me. And they dress normal. You could not pick them out of a lineup.

The disguises are all very effective. Cars buzz by out on Bengal Boulevard and shoppers hustle into and out of Smith's and Little Caesars without paying the operation a glance.

The name on the door is no clue that the Big Man is inside, either, This is what it says: "P.J.'s Forgotten Children."

Kathy Pettey, for that matter, insists she is not Santa Claus. She says she is a Sandy wife and mother who for the past six years has served as president of P.J.'s Forgotten Children, a charitable organization dedicated to making sure children who live in families that are touched by mental illnesses are not forgotten.

The charity was started in 1986 by the Utah Alliance for the Mentally Ill out of concern for the number of suicides and suicide attempts during the holidays by mentally ill parents distressed over not being able to provide Christmas for their children.

In 1995, the family of Patrick John Smith, a young man who died while suffering severe mental illness, established the charity as an independent nonprofit and gave it the name it is known by to this day.

Every year, P.J.'s collects donations to make sure hundreds of kids have Christmas. In addition, it provides school supplies for kids every fall.

If you want to catch the Christmas spirit, P.J.'s is the place. Step inside and the feeling is palpable. Everybody is in a good mood. The thrill of giving is infectious. The atmosphere can be summed up in two syllables: merry.

The walls are lined with blankets and jackets and kids' clothing and stuffed animals and toys. Along one entire wall, completed bags are filled with Christmas gifts, each one identified by a single name: Sally, or Tom, or Lindsey, or Brandon, and so forth.

Kathy notes that everyone associated with P.J's is a volunteer. The only overhead is to pay for the building's utilities, which helps explain why it's slightly chilly inside.

Or is it because the workers prefer cold weather?

Then there's the fact that the Boyer Co. owns the building and rents it to P.J.'s for a dollar a month.

To whom would they give such a deal, other than Santa?

Kathy gets tears in her eyes as she tells story after story about the joy that comes to everyone associated with P.J.s — receivers and givers alike.

She tells one story about a Cub Scout troop that came to P.J.'s this year and spent an entire afternoon helping assemble Christmas stockings,

While they were working, Kathy explained to the Scouts that the stockings they were stuffing would be some child's Christmas stocking on Christmas morning.

Finally, one of the younger Scouts raised his hand. He had a burning question.

"Why can't Santa find these kids?" he wanted to know.

So how did you answer that one, I asked Kathy.

"I told him that some of these children don't have a home so Santa needs help from us."

Good cover, Santa. I must say, excellent cover.

Lee Benson's column runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com.

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