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With a red mailbox, two Gulfport elves spread the Christmas spirit

This year’s wish-list includes a guitar, a cure, and a kiss from Sam.
Veronica DaSilva, 63, (left) and Julie Stenstrom, 64, sit on their front porch and look through letters addressed to Santa, which are left in Santa’s mailbox the couple set up in their front yard. They then answer each letter as Santa, on special themed paper, Monday, Dec.20, 2021 in Gulfport.
Veronica DaSilva, 63, (left) and Julie Stenstrom, 64, sit on their front porch and look through letters addressed to Santa, which are left in Santa’s mailbox the couple set up in their front yard. They then answer each letter as Santa, on special themed paper, Monday, Dec.20, 2021 in Gulfport. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 23, 2021

GULFPORT — The mailbox, bright red and gleaming in the Florida morning sun, stands tall at the end of the walkway.

Julie Stenstrom bends down and pulls out the drawer of letters. She gathers the envelopes and folded pieces of construction paper — some crinkled by grubby hands, others lavishly adorned with three-dimensional stickers, all colorful — and joins Veronica DaSilva on their porch loveseat.

Every year, Santa sends the mailbox to Veronica and Julie, two of his elves. They faithfully guard the mail, sending letters on to Santa so he can respond as Christmas nears.

So the story goes.

Ella starts her letter admitting she was not good all year, so she’ll ask for fewer presents (still, she wants an electric guitar). Riley, 11, asks for a cure for her mom who’s sick, and a kiss from longtime crush Sam. A kid wants to know how COVID-19 impacted Santa.

Julie ponders how to respond.

Between us adults, Julie bought the mailbox, originally $500, on sale at Lowe’s after Christmas three years ago. She writes the responses, for which she never accepts help, no matter how many letters pile up on her desk.

Veronica DaSilva, 63, left, and Julie Stenstrom, 64, sit on their front porch in Gulfport and look through letters addressed to Santa, which are left in Santa’s mailbox the couple set up in their front yard. They then answer each letter as Santa, on special themed paper.
Veronica DaSilva, 63, left, and Julie Stenstrom, 64, sit on their front porch in Gulfport and look through letters addressed to Santa, which are left in Santa’s mailbox the couple set up in their front yard. They then answer each letter as Santa, on special themed paper. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Last year, the 64-year-old responded to 600 children.

Responses are printed on Christmas-themed paper and sent in envelopes with Santa’s return address: “Elfie Lane, North Pole.” Gulfport kids get a candy cane in their envelopes, hand-delivered by one of the elves. Every child would get a candy cane, Julie says, if it weren’t for the cost of postage.

To the kid asking about the virus, she thinks she’ll probably respond that everyone at the North Pole is wearing masks and taking precautions.

“I don’t know if I’ll mention the vaccine,” she said. “That can be a slippery slope.”

The powder blue home on 51st St. S is hard to miss. A storm nearly killed the avocado tree in the center of the yard five years ago, yet the plant flourished and quadrupled in size. The poinsettia that Julie transplanted from a pot to the side of the house last winter has grown 8 feet tall — as big as a Christmas tree.

Letters for Santa inside a Santa’s mailbox set up in the front yard at the Gulfport home of Veronica DaSilva and Julie Stenstrom. The couple answer each letter as Santa, on special themed paper.
Letters for Santa inside a Santa’s mailbox set up in the front yard at the Gulfport home of Veronica DaSilva and Julie Stenstrom. The couple answer each letter as Santa, on special themed paper. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

To advertise the mailbox, Veronica pops into nearby elementary schools, puts up flyers around the neighborhood, posts in Facebook groups and makes post office runs.

Last year, the couple spent $500 as Santa’s elves. Parents and neighbors have dropped stamps or cash into the mailbox to help out. Veronica helps stamp and stuff envelopes, too.

The elves are typically busiest the weekend before Christmas. Julie has the ongoing worry that she won’t be able to respond to all the letters before Christmas, which has never happened. On a recent weekend before the holiday, the couple invited a few close friends over to help stuff, seal and stamp. But only Julie writes.

“I like to read the letters and think about how I’ll respond,” she said. Parents have emailed her their kids’ outsized reactions to reading her letters. She admits, with a bashful smile, that being the source of pure joy gives her a feeling that can only be described as pride.

Veronica DaSilva, 63, left, and Julie Stenstrom, 64, sit on their front porch in Gulfport and look through letters addressed to Santa, which are left in Santa’s mailbox the couple set up in their front yard. They then answer each letter as Santa, on special themed paper.
Veronica DaSilva, 63, left, and Julie Stenstrom, 64, sit on their front porch in Gulfport and look through letters addressed to Santa, which are left in Santa’s mailbox the couple set up in their front yard. They then answer each letter as Santa, on special themed paper. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

The couple estimates they’ll receive nearly 300 letters by Christmas this year, a significant decline from the last two seasons. Veronica speculates that parents in this sluggish economy are reluctant to encourage their kids to write Santa for gifts that they cannot buy. She also says she might not have posted as consistently about the mailbox on social media this year.

Santa’s elves have wishes, too. Veronica’s mom has been in hospice care since the start of the pandemic. The doctor said her mom wouldn’t be able to survive COVID. The family has been cautious, wearing masks indoors and only letting a handful of people into the house. Even so, this Christmas may be their last together.

“Merry Christmas!” yells a neighbor walking past the couple’s home. They reciprocate the sentiment.

“How’re you doing, Mr. And Mrs. Santa?” he says. “I’m checking my list to see if you’re on my naughty or nice list!” The women laugh.

“Gulfport is a very neighborly town,” Veronica says.

Veronica DaSilva, 63, left, and Julie Stenstrom, 64, sit on their front porch in Gulfport and look through letters addressed to Santa, which are left in Santa’s mailbox the couple set up in their front yard. They then answer each letter as Santa, on special themed paper.
Veronica DaSilva, 63, left, and Julie Stenstrom, 64, sit on their front porch in Gulfport and look through letters addressed to Santa, which are left in Santa’s mailbox the couple set up in their front yard. They then answer each letter as Santa, on special themed paper. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Veronica, who served 40 years in the Air Force and Navy before retiring four years ago, is gregarious and animated. The white pom-pom on her red Santa hat bounces as she speaks with her hands. Julie, wearing a green Santa hat, leans toward her wife, her arm stretched behind Veronica.

The couple started dating in 2013 and moved to Gulfport from Central Florida three years later. They recently bought property in western North Carolina, where they may spend the summer months. Julie, a Sanford native, used to scoff at snowbirds, but says Florida has gotten too hot. Even so, Gulfport will remain home.

Especially when Santa needs them.

For now, one of the elves should be getting back to her desk. Santa needs to remind Riley to keep a positive attitude and tell Ella that, well, next year, she should try to be good.

Veronica DaSilva, 63, left, and Julie Stenstrom, 64, sit on their front porch in Gulfport and look through letters addressed to Santa, which are left in Santa’s mailbox the couple set up in their front yard. They then answer each letter as Santa, on special themed paper.
Veronica DaSilva, 63, left, and Julie Stenstrom, 64, sit on their front porch in Gulfport and look through letters addressed to Santa, which are left in Santa’s mailbox the couple set up in their front yard. They then answer each letter as Santa, on special themed paper. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
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About this series

Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it.