Stanley was just a little boy, but he had a severe kidney ailment and friends and family thought he wouldn't live another year.

It was during the mid-'60s, in a winter that Robert C. Mitchell, a Deseret News assistant city editor, remembers as "bleak, bitter cold, just plain bad. The fact that this little boy was probably going to die just added a new dimension."A day or two before Christmas, a friend called Mitchell at work and told him about Stanley's family. The father had recently been laid off, with no immediate prospects for more work. The money was gone. There wouldn't be a special day for the household, which included other children as well.

Worse, it might be Stanley's last Christmas.

Mitchell, who admits that he wears his heart on his sleeve, got then-city editor Jerry Cahill's approval, then enlisted the aid of the staff to put together a Christmas to remember for the family.

"We were really scrambling," Mitchell said. "I collected money from the staff - and my pockets were just bulging. Then I borrowed a couple of staffers to help me and we shopped fast, calling businesses to get better buys and make the money stretch. The main problem was logistical - just getting it done."

Mitchell and his friends got "something for all of them: food and toys and money." Then, armed with the turkey that Cahill's wife, Lela, had in the oven for her own family, they went to Stanley's house about 10 p.m. Christmas Eve, when the children were in bed, and dropped off their bounty.

"The adults were in shock and so grateful," Mitchell remembered. "It was such an outpouring. And I never had such a wonderful Christmas; it was just plain fun."

Best of all, it was not, in fact, Stanley's last Christmas. He grew up to be as nice a kid as you'd ever meet, according to the man who first contacted Mitchell about the family.

The next year, the Deseret News staff, again led by Mitchell, adopted a family that had lost everything when their home burned down.

Within a few short years, though, the project outgrew Mitchell and his Christmas crew, as they learned about more needy families than they could possibly help. At that point, the newspaper decided to adopt the program as a company project. In the late '60s, the Deseret News began encouraging readers to help out with "Santa's Helping Hand."

Several programs exist to help needy families at Christmas time, so guidelines were set for each one to ensure maximum coverage and minimum duplication. The Deseret News program, working with the state's Department of Social Services and other groups, serves eligible low-income families in Salt Lake County who live south of 45th South and west of 22nd West.

Low-income families can apply for Christmas help Monday through Friday until Dec. 9, but applications must be made in person at the Office of Community Operations, 2835 S. Main Street.

Santa's Helping Hand is for young children between 3 and 14. If a family has children of this age along with younger or older children, all the children are included. Families with children under 3 or over 14 or with only one child are not eligible but are referred instead to other agencies.

The best part of the program, according to families that have been sponsors in the past, is the person-to-person aspect. Families or individuals who "adopt" a family for Christmas can meet with the recipients' parents to discuss specific needs and preferences.

Keith West, promotion director for the Deseret News, said that those who adopt a family should provide an "adequate Christmas but not a lavish one," since the family may not be adopted the next Christmas or if adopted may receive less and be disappointed.

Families, individuals or organizations that want to adopt a family should call 237-2139 Monday through Friday. The Deseret News will assign families until Dec. 24 but encourages an earlier response.