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Letters to Santa: Heartbreaking requests among the predictable lists

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"What do you mean? What about all those?" I asked, pointing to stacks on two other desks.

"The rest we got were from adults," she said. "They started coming in August."

"Letters to Santa? From grown-ups?" I asked.

Nearly 300 letters sat on the other desks, written in neat print or loopy cursive script, detailing jobs lost and hungry children, addressed by adults to a man in a red suit who is apparently their last hope.

"I'm a single mom living in the D.C. General shelter with my kids," one letter began. It ended not with a request for toys or bikes or a remote control, but for clothes. And instead of model numbers and prices, she included her children's shoe, underwear and clothing sizes.

"I want them to know there is hope," she wrote.

They went on and on like this, hundreds of Hail Mary passes to Santa or the Postal Service or just anyone who might get the letters and read them. Some were optimistic enough to include addresses and names, should a secret Santa choose to respond.

Others were nothing more than handwritten prayers signed with a single name, letters in a bottle sent adrift. A last resort, or maybe just catharsis.

"We saw a few last year, but it was never like this," said one of the clerks who was sorting mail, shaking her head as she opened yet another one from a mother.

The story has been the same across the country, where big-city post offices are seeing more requests for food and clothing, rather than toys, and more parents are doing the asking.

For about 100 years, the Postal Service has had volunteers help answer the letters, either by writing back or actually fulfilling some of the requests. Operation Santa took a decidedly millennial turn last year, after a Maryland postal worker recognized a registered sex offender among the volunteers who got the address of a child who sent a letter to Santa.

Now, Secret Santas who want to help out have to register with a photo identification before they can adopt a family. Then, clerks redact any names and addresses on the letters and assign each request a number. The benefactor can then send a gift to that child's coded identity. Yes, Virginia, we have new security measures.

They weren't even going to do it in D.C. this year, with everyone stretched so thin and budgets tight, the postal employees said. But the letters kept coming with pleas for help, so they quickly marshaled a few clerks last week to go through the letters, and they'll be ready for adoption Wednesday.

The letter writers will be available for adoption this week at the Brentwood Post Office, 900 Brentwood Rd. NE. (You will be asked to fill out a form and present a picture ID to be a secret Santa.) Someone on the right end of the recession can take a letter and send off a jacket, some shoes, a Baby Alive or even a toilet seat to fulfill a request. But for many families who are homeless or jobless, what they really need can't be sent in the mail.

Maybe the little girl who wanted the all-powerful remote control had the wisest request of all.

Wouldn't it be cool to change the unemployment rate, homeless population and budget shortfalls with the touch of a button?

"Dear Sata . . . "

E-mail me at dvorakp@washpost.com.


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