Some people call on friends or family when they can't afford Christmas gifts for their children. Others might rely on the kindness of strangers through Sub for Santa and other charities.

Then there are those who feel so desperate, so despondent, that they can think of only one solution: to take their own lives.

That's why today you'll find Kathy Pettey handing out clothing, toys and candy-filled stockings in an empty video store tucked between a copy center and a tax office on Salt Lake County's Bengal Boulevard.

Since 1986, when Utah mental health workers noticed an alarming increase in attempted suicides by clients who couldn't afford even the simplest Christmas gifts, P.J.'s Forgotten Children has brought comfort and dignity every holiday season to families suffering from mental illness.

"Although it's usually one person who has mental illness, it affects the whole family," says Pettey, who is president of the charity named after a Sandy teenager who died because of severe mental illness.

"Children are often forgotten or overlooked because so much energy goes into simply coping," she says. "When a parent can barely get out of bed because of depression, Christmas doesn't really take a priority. It can easily become just another day."

Hoping to get the word out that P.J.'s Forgotten Children is still in need of new toys, socks, coats, grooming supplies, blankets and cash donations to buy shoe vouchers for children of all ages, Pettey met me for a Free Lunch of tomato basil soup and mango salad at Cafe Zupas, down the road from her office.

This year, her goal is to provide Christmas gifts and stockings to more than 1,100 children, all referred by Valley Mental Health and other organizations that help the mentally ill.

"The miracle of it is that we never think we're going to have enough for everyone, but with the public's help, it always works out," she says. "Even though times are hard, I know that people want to give whatever they can."

Since 1986, when a counselor cleared out a closet at Valley Mental Health and stocked it with new toys and clothing that parents could pick out and wrap themselves, the needs of the community have become so great that P.J.'s Forgotten Children now fills up a warehouse-sized room every December.

"After that first year, not a single suicide attempt was reported during Christmas," says Pettey, who also oversees a back-to-school drive for kids every year, providing them with backpacks, notebooks, pencils and crayons.

"To take the pressure off these families is such a gift," she says, brushing away tears as she recalls some of the people who have come through her door.

"There are lots of grandparents out there, caring for their grandkids because the parents are in rehab or are just incapable of caring for them. One grandma came in, sobbing, saying she never knew what a blessing it was to afford a present for her children when they were young. Now that she's a caretaker again, she just didn't have the money for Christmas."

When reports came in that some children were putting cardboard inserts in their shoes to cover holes because their parents couldn't afford new pairs, Pettey added $25 shoe vouchers to the gift packs. Presents of shampoo, soap and toothpaste are also popular, she says, because some families have to choose between paying for medication or grooming supplies.

Volunteers at P.J.'s Forgotten Children also make sure that healthy snacks like cheese and crackers and fruit are tucked into each stocking, "because for some kids that might be Christmas dinner," says Pettey.

"It's humbling to see what these children want, their wish lists are so simple," she says. "They want socks, underwear, maybe a few books. The last few years, the number of children needing help has outnumbered the volunteers, but I'm confident we'll make it. With everyone's help, we'll see another miracle this year."

More information can be found at pjsforgottenchildren.org.

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