SANTA CLARITA, Calif. (AP) _ The letter from the 8-year-old begins like thousands of others: ``Dear Santa, I want a computer for Christmas with a mouse.''

But read on:

``I am partially blind and I want to learn all I can because my doctor said that I will lose my sight by the time I be come a teenager. My mom can't get us anything for Christmas. Because she dosn't have any money.''

Another child prints neat block letters on white paper: ``Please make my Daddy stop drinking.'' Another asks Santa to cure her mother's cancer.

Confides 8-year-old Audrey, in a labored cursive hand, ``I need my mom to stop believing that my dad has another woman because when thay fight my heart starts breaking.''

By the tens of thousands, they come addressed to ``Santa in Heaven,'' ``Santa up in the sky,'' ``Santa Claus. North Pole.''

The U.S. Postal Service, through its 85 consumer affairs offices around the country, tries to answer every one. Often, volunteers who contact local post offices try to fulfill some of the children's Christmas wishes.

In Southern California, at a massive distribution center an hour's drive north of Los Angeles, Stacia Crane is surrounded by overflowing bins of mail addressed to Santa Claus.

She manages the consumer affairs office for the Van Nuys district, which stretches north more than 200 miles. Her regular job is handling complaints. At Christmas, she and colleagues across the country start reading Santa's letters.

This season alone will bring 15,000 letters, she estimates. Crane and her two-member staff place the most poignant in a box marked ``needy.''

The contents are heartbreaking. They are also full of hope. Not only children believe in Santa Claus.

In broken, misspelled English, a Hispanic mother of two in Massachusetts writes:

``Pleses help me. I need toys and closes for my grils. I do not have a home and I only get (social security) of $497 amont.'' She addresses her letter ``Santa Claus c/o North Pole'' and, for some reason, scribbles a California zip code on the envelope.

A soft-hearted woman with no family, Crane works 12-hour days, straight through Christmas Eve, answering letters, organizing volunteers and delivering gifts.

Ask her why she does this, and her eyes fill with tears. ``These kids really believe. They deserve to have somebody get back to them.''

In the ``needy'' box, writers ask for food, for shoes, for gifts for everyone in their family except themselves, for jobs for their parents and for an end to abuse.

``They're just children,'' she says, blinking hard. ``They shouldn't have these burdens.''

Postal employees and volunteers have been known to take boxes of food and gifts, place them on a letter writer's doorstep, ring the bell, then run.

``We watched from around the corner as they opened the door,'' Crane said. ``We want them to think Santa brought it.''

Facilities engineer Mike Scisson takes home letters that have phone numbers on them. Then he calls and pretends he's Santa Claus.

Does he get paid overtime? ``Oh, heavens no,'' he says. ``I wouldn't want to.''

Since 1912, post offices have been authorized to open mail addressed to Santa Claus and to answer such letters and enlist volunteers to help the writers.

Eight years ago, the job of answering Santa's mail was given to the new consumer affairs department. Previously, individual post offices and letter carriers answered what they could. The rest ended up in the dead mail department.

``At first, we weren't very good at it,'' Crane admits.

Like the time she and a group of postal employees filled a car with presents and descended upon a Hispanic family whose son had written to Santa.

``All these government employees, in our government suits, in our government car with government plates,'' Crane recalls. ``No one would open the door.''

They found a Spanish speaker and went back.

``The uncle started to cry,'' Crane said. ``He couldn't believe that someone in the United States would do this.''