PALM HARBOR — Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.
But have you heard about his southern cousin? The one who lives in Palm Harbor?
Ho, ho, ho, you say.
Well, consider this:
June Watts lives in a home that looks like an Alpine ski lodge, owns a full-size sleigh and keeps her Christmas tree up six months out of the year.
Even more compelling is that every Christmas, she helps spread holiday glee across the country with a program that benefits not only children, but also the hungry, sick and disabled.
"Since 1985, I've raised $25 million for charities," she said.
Over the years, those millions have gone to Easter Seals, the Children's Miracle Network, the American Cancer Society, Special Olympics, the Abilities Foundation, numerous food banks and a host of other worthy causes.
Watts is president of Marketing Productions Inc., a company that turns brand new bills into Santa Dollars, Bunny Bucks and, soon-to-be-released, Cupid's Cash.
The holiday notes each feature a smiling Santa, a rabbit, or a bow-bearing cupid artfully positioned on top of George Washington's mug. They come enclosed in a greeting card and are sold for $2.50. Sometimes the Bunny Bucks are issued in two-dollar bills and sold for $3.50.
One dollar goes to a designated charity; Watts' company retains 50 cents to cover overhead and her salary.
Consumers can pull off the sticker and spend the legal tender if they so desire, but many choose to collect or display them.
Some re-sell them years later on eBay.
"They've entered the collectible world," Watts said. "In 1991, Good Morning America predicted they would become future holiday collectibles. I have seen them sell for as high as $22.50."
Watts' Christmas tree is adorned with all the Santa Dollars and greeting cards of Christmases past.
"It's Joyland," she said, gazing at the tree. "It keeps me on target and inspires me."
• • •
The concept for the Santa money began when Watts was a child.
That Christmas, her father had just returned from service in World War II and there was very little money for presents. So her parents hung some tinsel and a few dollar bills on the Christmas tree.
They were from Santa, of course.
"It wasn't much money, but it looked like a million dollars to me," Watts said, recalling the enchantment of that Christmas morn.
She didn't realize it then, but those dangling dollars would create an indelible image that would guide her future career as a master marketer.
"I knew that dollar bills could generate excitement and interest like nothing else," she said.
• • •
Fast forward to the early 1980s, when Watts and her partner, Roz White, were working as marketing directors, trying to help small shopping centers lure customers back from the malls.
Dollar bills would be a real attention-getter they thought, so they designed newspaper inserts with copies of dollar bills on one side, store coupons on the other.
Customers poured into the stores.
Everyone loved it — except the feds.
Turns out the creative ones were violating counterfeiting laws.
Not only that, but some savvy shoppers were depositing the reproductions into change machines and pocketing the quarters.
The women were called into FBI offices and given a lesson in Counterfeiting 101.
But they were trying to do good, so the feds let them off with a stern warning.
In the process, they learned there were no laws prohibiting removable stickers on real dollar bills.
Thus, the Santa Dollar was born during the Christmas season of 1985.
With $2,000 in new dollar bills from a bank, and engraved stickers that blended perfectly with the color and style of the dollars, the concept was tested at shopping centers in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota.
The dollars flew out of the stores like a reindeer-driven sleigh.
Next, the women trademarked the idea and obtained an exclusive contract with Publix Super Markets to sell the Santa Dollars the following season.
They produced many thousands of them, which sold out in the first week.
Eventually, they partnered with businesses in other states.
The venture was highly successful, but stressful, too, and the partnership between the two women didn't survive. Litigation followed, and in 2004 Watts was awarded the rights to the company.
Today, the program is in 31 states with a multitude of sponsors, including Walmart, 7-Eleven, Sam's Club, and numerous banks and credit unions.
The sponsors make no money, but it's a traffic builder that appeals to consumers who want to pass out small, memorable gifts for the holidays. In the process, charities benefit.
"It a win-win situation," Watts said.
In Florida, Santa Dollars can be purchased only at Publix.
Locally, those dollars benefit the Abilities Foundation, a Clearwater-based nonprofit that helps the disabled.
Frank De Lucia, president and CEO of the foundation, said Santa Dollars have netted the organization $165,000 over the past five years.
"It's a wonderful program," he said. "June Watts is very passionate and committed to helping us help people with disabilities."
Watts said she hopes to be in all 50 states one day.
"The Lord is my partner now," she said. "He gives me vision and continues to give me the energy. It's a warm and wonderful feeling to be able to do so much good."
Reach Terri Bryce Reeves at firstname.lastname@example.org