LeROY - Long before Nicole Bialeschki was born, members of her family have been helping Santa Claus in LeRoy.
For decades, LeRoy schoolchildren have been writing letters to the Jolly Old Elf, and older students have been lending him a hand by writing back to the children on his behalf. The Santa Letters program, which was run by a teacher and 12 students this year, handled about 300 letters since Nov.15.
High school secretary Kim Stewart realized just how long the tradition has lasted when she figured out Bialeschki, her daughter, was the third generation in her family to participate.
Stewart's mother, Shirley Stewart, was a high school student who answered letters for Mrs. Wieting's class in 1960. Kim Stewart did the same for teacher Sue Roberts in 1983, and Bialeschki, a seventh-grader, now helps Roberts.
"I never dreamed it spanned three generations until we started talking about it," said Kim Stewart. "My daughter came home talking about it, and I said, ?~I did that too.' Then mom said ?~me too'!"
Grade school students in the LeRoy school district write letters to Santa, and their teachers forward them to the Santa Letters team.
Letters also can be dropped off into a box at the LeRoy Post Office. Seventh-grader Trina Phillips got a chance to use her artistic skills by making the special Santa letter box.
Most of the work is done by high school interns, led this year by senior Cassi Sorensen.
The process usually begins early in November, when letters are sent to teachers and posters are put up around town to solicit letters. This year they began around Nov. 15, and the deadline to submit letters was Dec. 5, but students took some after that date as well.
Roberts, who has coordinated the program since 1971, said changes have been made to protect the belief in Santa Claus.
"We used to have the elves who answered the letter sign them (as Santa)," she said. "But kids are smart. They'd compare signatures, and say ?~I've got the real Santa. You don't.' So now one person signs them all."
That one person - the designated Santa - also signs off on all replies to make sure they are grammatically correct and don't promise anything lavish. If there are problems with the letter, they go back to the elf for revisions.
The Santa Letters program usually relies on high school seniors, but this year also included a pair of juniors and two seventh-graders.
The seniors come from the for-credit vocational internship program at LeRoy High School. The internship program matches students with business partners in the community.
Roberts sees the Santa Letters program as a chance for students to use some of what they learn in school.
"They have to make sure they have good grammar and know how to write a letter," said Roberts.