PROVO — The paths that led them there vary, but folks on the Sub for Santa list in Utah County have this in common: a fierce desire to insulate their children from the challenges this year has brought.

"Holidays are supposed to be about being happy and being with family, not all this commercial stuff," said Kelly, a single mother who is receiving help this year. "But when your kids' friends are all getting gifts, it's hard on them."

Kelly, who is going through a difficult divorce, asked not to be identified by her real name. She said her estranged husband's spending habits and refusal to work forced her to file for bankruptcy, and now, about one-third of each of her paychecks is garnished.

"I can barely afford to pay rent," she said. "Everyday things are hard to come by, let alone Christmas."

As of Wednesday, the United Way of Utah County had 1,807 families in situations similar to Kelly's, whose ability to provide gifts for their children depends on the Sub for Santa program.

Program directors expect that number to rise close to last year's total of 1,980 families before Christmas. And while every family in the program has been matched to a sponsor, United Way is still accepting sponsors to meet the last-second demand that pops up in the last days before Christmas.

More information is available online at www.uw.org/Programs/ProgramsSubSanta.htm.

"We're still taking sponsors, especially those who can take names this weekend or can step up at the last minute next week," said Jenn Kilstrom, program director for United Way of Utah County's Sub for Santa program.

Kilstrom said some sponsors have to pull out at the last minute, and other families look for help in the final days before Christmas because they don't have any other options.

An unprecedented outpouring of support this year has allowed United Way to accept people into the program much later than usual, Kilstrom said, pointing out that programs in Salt Lake County and Davis County had to stop accepting families a couple weeks ago.

"We were a little worried this year, because with the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, there were so many opportunities to give," she said. "But we've had a tremendous amount of support, and we feel real lucky to be where we are."

So does Kelly, who said Sub for Santa provides material relief, but also helps families establish meaningful Christmas traditions that don't revolve around presents.

Kelly said she had received help from Sub for Santa in the past, and was afraid that she would be excluded this year as a result.

Kilstrom said United Way evaluates each case individually, and tries to avoid creating dependencies by not accepting the same families repeatedly.

"But it's really hard for me to turn away a single mom who's working and doing a great job to support her family, but has a low-paying job and doesn't make enough money," Kilstrom said. "We have a heart in our program."

Kelly said she has always wanted to be on the opposite side of the Sub for Santa program, but just hasn't had the money to do so yet. But for now, she said she's grateful for the kindness others have shown her and her family.

"My daughter is at that age where she's not really sure if there really is a Santa, so the other day she said, 'Honestly mom, tell me the truth,' " Kelly said. "I thought about what to say, then I thought about Sub for Santa, and I told her there is."


E-mail: jtwitchell@desnews.com