Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Omaha.com
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By Michael O’Connor
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
She’s Santa’s helper, an elf in business casual.
A keeper of the magic, working in a cubicle, not a North Pole cottage. Armed with a shiny silver letter opener and a pen, she helps children believe.
For 15 years, Kim Barham of the Omaha Post Office has been answering letters from children for Santa Claus. Notes start arriving in mid-November, scribbled in crayon by preschoolers or penned in cursive by 9-year-olds.
Barham reads every letter — all 1,000 of them — and writes a personal reply on behalf of the man in red.
She knows it’s a big responsibility. She knows about Christmas dreams. She knows that the years children write to Santa are as fleeting as they are memorable.
“They took the time to write,’’ she said. “I want them to know Santa really appreciates that and they are special in his eyes.”
She usually works in customer relations, fielding complaints and tackling other duties. But for a couple months a year, she’s Santa’s executive assistant, and it’s one of her favorite parts of the job.
She works north of Eppley Airfield in one-story postal building.
A postal employee for 28 years, she sits in a swivel chair and sips a Diet Pepsi as she slides the letter opener into envelopes and pulls out the notes. Some letters make her laugh out loud — like one this year from a boy who said if Santa can’t bring a baby sister, he’d take an iPod.
Others make her throat tighten and tears well. Those are the hard ones, the letters asking for gloves for mom, soup for the cupboard or for parents to get back together. She forwards letters asking for food and clothing to local social service agencies.
Any letter addressed to Santa and mailed in the Omaha area lands on Barham’s desk. It’s amazing that some arrive at all.
Many Santa letters are mailed without stamps. Some kids place a flower sticker where the postage goes. Some draw the stamp.
Barham figures many kids never tell parents they’re writing Santa and drop the letter in the mailbox at home. Mail carriers keep an eye out for Santa letters and if they don’t spot a return address, they jot it on the envelope so the child gets a reply.
Most envelopes are addressed simply “Santa, North Pole.” Other addresses are more creative, like “Santa at 1 Reindeer Lane.” One envelope was covered only with squiggly lines in orange marker but still arrived at Barham’s desk.
Barb Kuehn, a friend and co-worker, said Barham’s biggest goal is making sure all children receive a letter back from Santa. A few fellow employees help Barham answer letters, and she recruits a few extra to make sure kids get a reply, Kuehn said.
Kuehn said Barham takes extra steps to make sure kids feel special. When kids don’t sign their note to Santa, Barham will address her letter back to “my dear precious child.”
Kids write their Santa letters in crayon, marker, pencil and pen. Some are typed on computers. Color printers help kids give Santa photos of exactly what Barbie or Hot Wheel they want.
Children still ask for toy trucks, dolls and BB guns. But they also ask for laptops, iPhones and video games.
Barham, 51, grew up in the days when Easy-Bake Ovens were about as high tech as toys got. Her family lived in Omaha’s Florence neighborhood and she attended St. Paul Lutheran School and graduated from North High.
When she was little, she loved playing teacher. She took lots of baby-sitting jobs in junior high, and when she was in eighth grade, she was picked at school to help kindergartners learn numbers and the alphabet.
She grew up with an older brother and a younger sister who was born on Christmas Eve.
Her family opened presents on that night each year, and her mom made chili. She and her brother and sister would set out cookies for Santa and carrots for the reindeer, and only a few crumbs would remain.
Santa brought presents while the family was at church. She remembers sitting in the pew, wondering if Santa was in her house. Would he like the cookies? Would he bring the present she asked for — like the little table and chair for tea parties with her dolls?
After church, she’d rush into her house, head straight for the tree and the presents underneath.
Even though she’s Santa’s helper, she’s not a big fan of December weather. She loves escaping with her husband, Marty, to warm spots like South Padre Island, Texas, to find a sunny beach.
The holidays aren’t the only time she wears red. She’s a Husker football fan, and also roots for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
And she’s passionate about her faith. She attends a weekly Bible study. One of her favorite Bible passages is the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew.
Barham and her husband have two sons, Dayton, a 17-year-old junior at Millard North, and, Cooper, a 21-year-old college senior in Minneapolis.
Her sons have always opened their gifts on Christmas morning. When they were young, they sang “Happy Birthday” to Jesus at a nativity in the living room. Barham sips cinnamon tea as her sons open gifts. Even though her boys are older, each of their presents still carries an important sticker: From Santa.
When they were young, her sons wrote to St. Nick. She answered them, having a little fun with the boys, who had no idea she was answering for Santa.
She told them to study hard in math or whatever subject they needed help with. She reminded them to do the chore they grumbled about, telling them they’d better get it done if they wanted gifts next year.
Santa has to have a sense of humor. Letters from kids give her plenty of smiles.
A few years ago, a boy listed 113 presents in his letter, which was so long he had to tape notebook paper together. Barham hung the list from her office ceiling and it stretched to the floor.
She doesn’t blame kids for loading their lists with lots of gifts.
“If you’re asking Santa,” she said, “you might as well shoot for the moon.”
She never promises specific gifts because parents can’t always come through.
When letters arrive right before Christmas and time is running short, Barham sends kids one of a half-dozen versions of a typed letter, thanking them for their note. But she still writes a sentence or two at the bottom.
Barham tailors her messages. If a child mentions a sibling, Barham reminds the child to be nice to the brother or sister. If a child draws a picture, Barham writes that the art is hanging on Santa’s fridge.
If children mention a military father or mother who’s overseas, Barham writes that Mom or Dad loves them and thinks of them every single day.
Even though her letters to kids are personal, there’s one part that never changes.
Holding a blue, fine-point pen, she signs each one the same: “Love, Santa.”
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