The letters start arriving each year around the holidays, often addressed simply to "Christmas Stocking Lady, Sauk Rapids, MN."

The post office knows that lady is Kathy Schlueter, a one-woman philanthropy who has sewn about 20,000 Christmas stockings over the past two decades, stuffed them with candy and toys, and sent them to struggling families across Minnesota and beyond.

The recipients have no idea that the person behind the festive stockings can't deliver them on her own. Schlueter is attached to an oxygen machine 24 hours a day. In fact, she started sewing because her breathing difficulties made it tough to sleep. That insomnia led to a passion that has made Schlueter one of Minnesota's most unlikely secret Santas.

"If I hear about someone [in need], I want to help,'' said Schlueter, a retired teacher and librarian. "My family says, 'But you can't help everyone.' But I want to.''

Schlueter never set out to do this. But in 1993, her daughter suggested she offer the same beautiful stockings she gave to her family to people who were less fortunate. It struck a chord.

Schlueter made "only'' 350 stockings that year, sending them to the St. Cloud Children's Home, as well as a St. Cloud women's shelter and an area home for unwed mothers.

But word spread. By the fourth year, she was cranking out 1,000 stockings a season. She and a friend even drove a batch to Boys Town in Nebraska. And as natural disasters struck, Schlueter became a whirlwind of Christmas fabric and thread, cranking out 1,000 stockings for victims of Hurricane Andrew and another 1,000 after Hurricane Floyd.

All this happens from a tiny corner of her bedroom, where the sewing machine is piled with colorful fabrics cut into stocking shapes. A large closet in her basement is the year-round storage area for the thousands of stocking stuffers she buys, such as crayons, socks, stickers, coloring books and stuffed animals.

On the weekend after Thanksgiving, Schlueter's husband, Allan, and her children and grandchildren lug the loot from the ready-to-burst closet. They line it up on long tables in the garage, and create an assembly line of stocking stuffing. Toys are sorted roughly by the age and sex of the child, so the stockings can be tailored for their recipients. By the end of the weekend, about 2,000 stockings are filled -- no two alike.

But there's other stuff, too. Last month, the family living room was covered with big stuffed animals, board games, backpacks and hundreds of little toothbrushes, hair products and soaps destined for homeless families in the area.

"We take some of the backpacks to Salvation Army, and then a friend and I drive around,'' explained Schlueter. "We hand them out to people who are homeless.''

For years Schlueter's husband and son-in-law delivered the stockings to their many destinations. More recently, they've made the local deliveries while her daughter-in-law's employer mails out the rest.

This year's batch of stockings were slated to go to shelters for abused women in Rochester, Brainerd and St. Paul; a group home for girls in Remer, Minn.; a prison ministry; City of Refuge in Atlanta; Minnesota Teen and Adult Challenge in Minneapolis, and more.

But Schlueter never sees the delight of the people who take home the stockings. Her lifeline is a 50-foot cord attached to a ventilator in the dining room. She can go outside with a portable breathing device, but only for about two hours. She says she actually prefers to remain behind the scenes.

"It's good for people to know that someone cares about them,'' said Schlueter. "There's no need to get credit or praise.''


Fast-forward three weeks. A group of young mothers are lined up in the hallway of Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, a treatment and recovery program for people with addictions. It's the day parents get to pick up Christmas presents for their children. The hallway is lined with tables of games and toys, and at the end, about 200 Christmas stockings with the little heads of stuffed animals peeping over the tops.

"Oh my gosh!'' said the first mom to spot the display. "Wow, wow, wow.''

For moms like Katie Schwartz, the stockings were a godsend. She wasn't able to afford much this year, and she is eager to see her sons' reaction when they find the stockings hung over the fireplace on Christmas morning. "They will love them!'' she said.

Shannon Burke, another parent in the group, agreed: "This is a huge help, because it's super hard to go out, get to a store -- and to afford this.''

The women had no idea where the stockings came from. Their supervisor was moved to tears when she learned they were made by a 64-year-old disabled woman.

Terry Francis, a program director at Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, said he's noticed the stockings before, but knew nothing of Schlueter.

"I know we've been getting stockings from what appears from heaven,'' said Francis. "Now it looks like they are from heaven.''

As the stockings find new homes this week, Schlueter is taking a modest break. But not for long, as post-Christmas sales are an excellent time to get deals on toys and fabric. She uses money she earns from sewing "Memory Bears'' during the year to purchase items. Family and friends also chip in.

The sewing machine will be humming again soon.

"I'm tired a lot, but not from doing this,'' said Schlueter. "For a couple years, when I was really, really sick, I felt like stopping. My kids said they would carry on. So even if I get sick, this will continue.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511