When the Postal Service plays Santa
By Mary Wisniewski,
CHICAGO — One 13-year-old boy who sent a “Dear Santa” letter to the post office this year asked only for covers for his bed, “so I can stay warm this winter.”
Another letter from a 12-year-old wanted something for his single mother, because she worked so hard.
Heart-rending letters like these are sent each year to the Postal Service’s 100-year-old “Letters to Santa” program.
Postal employees go through the hundreds of thousands of letters addressed to “Santa Claus, North Pole, Alaska” to find those that express serious need.
Some of the letters are answered by charitable groups, businesses, schools, postal employees and individual anonymous givers, who can come to participating branches, pick letters and go shopping.
A week before Christmas, the Chicago branch had seen 18,000 letters, and more were arriving every day, communications director and “chief elf” Robin Anderson said. She expected about 2,500 to be answered. The New York “Operation Santa” program is the country’s largest, receiving more than 500,000 letters each season.
Letters this year are reflecting a greater need for necessities and have included more letters from adults looking for work who need help buying for their children, according to Chicago postal workers and givers.
“You’re reading letters from 6-year-old, 8-year-old kids who aren’t asking for video games, they’re asking for winter coats and food on the table, which is not something you’d think of kids writing to Santa for,” said Kelley Fernandez, 26, who, along with colleague Debbie Schmidt, 53, has answered letters to Santa for three years. Fernandez and Schmidt work for Toji Trading Group.
Last year, they got some co-workers involved, and this year the Chicago and Singapore offices participated. The employees bought gifts for 26 families this year, including 106 children. The 40 boxes they filled were the largest “Santa” shipment from the Chicago branch.
Anyone who wants to adopt a letter at a participating branch must fill out a form and show a picture ID. Then the giver comes back with a gift by Dec. 22 to match the letter and pays for postage.
To protect the privacy of recipients, the full names and addresses are known only to the Postal Service, which delivers the gifts.
One man who is an annual giver to the Santa program in Chicago used to be a recipient himself, Anderson said.
Schmidt and Fernandez say they bring a box of tissues when they read the letters, because they can be so emotional. Fernandez recalled that last year, a little girl wrote, “Dear Santa, we’re staying with our auntie because our mother can no longer take care of us, and we want you to know where we are this year.”