December 18, 2001 11:00 pm

By T.L. Petersen

Observer Staff Writer

Summer isnt the usual time to be thinking about Santa Claus and Christmas gifts for children.

But last summer it was at the top of the worry list for a committed group of volunteers, the people who have been putting together the Santa Mall for six years.

As Donna Brownlee, one of the mall organizers explained, the idea is to gather together vendors and donated items to provide a Christmas shopping experience for children from low-income families.

In the past, if there has been a shortage of funding between what is needed to finance the childrens shopping experience and the cost of the items, state agencies have helped.

This year, no extra state funds.

So when the Santa Mall volunteers started planning in August, Brownlee said, a sponsor was needed fast.

Darleen Hendon, another Santa mall volunteer, was at the hospital about then and got to talking with the volunteer pink ladies.

We really needed to keep this going, Hendon remembers.

So while the long-time volunteers mailed a letter to La Grande-Union County Chamber of Commerce members seeking donations, others approached the La Grande Lions noon club membership.

The Lions took on co-sponsorship of the Santa Mall, along with long-time sponsors at the National Guard.

The result will be a full-fledged Santa Mall Saturday at the armory, complete with plenty of tables of homemade and donated merchandise, and even an extended visit from the jolly old elf himself.

Brownlee explains that the Santa Mall will operate from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. after the National Guard and volunteers get all the tables set up. From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., the mall will be open to children who will be given packets of script to spend on gifts for their families.

The mall opens to older family members at 1 p.m., since some families prefer or need to shop together.

Family and childrens agencies have been collecting applications from families that will shop at the mall, and some people will get packets of the script at the door.

Nobodys turned away, Brownlee said.

To date, the Santa Mall has proven an ongoing success to help families make sure that they have a Christmas.

Most of the merchandise, Brownlee said, comes from home crafters who rent table space for $15. Some items are also donated from stores or individuals, but the rule of thumb is that all gifts must cost $5 or less. Many items only cost a $1 or $2, she added.

To be sure news of the Santa Mall reached those who could help, or those who need it, Brownlee and her group sent information out to all county schools and tried to notify all area churches.

She is still taking reservations for tables for Saturdays mall, and some donations.

The response to the mall has been wonderful, Brownlee said. While the number of families using the mall continues to increase, the number of table reservations also is growing.

More than a week ago, the Santa Mall already had 27 tables reserved, promising a selection for the 400 or more shoppers expected.

Brownlee, this years chairwoman, has had wide-ranging duties. While shes worked closely with the Lions Cheryl Hafer, shes also found herself sewing a Santa suit so Santa (her son-in-law Braden Lundy) would be appropriately garbed.

And then theres coordinating the day itself.

Script packets will be ready to go, applications will be ready for last-minute shoppers to fill out, groups will be helping vendors set up, other groups will be helping young shoppers wrap gifts, and general shopping advice will be offered.

For those who would like to set up a table at the Santa Mall, call Brownlee after 5 p.m. at 962-6270, or Hendon at 963-3249.