Around Christmastime in the early 1900s, New York City postal clerks grew dismayed over the number of letters being “sent” to the North Pole that would never reach their final destination. Realizing that many of the letters expressed real needs from real children, the clerks began chipping together their lunch money to respond to the letters going unanswered. They purchased and personally delivered the gifts requested by the neediest children.
But with each year, the number of letters seemed to grow, and the needs along with it. To ease the burden, in 1912, Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock authorized local postmasters throughout the country to share these letters with the public. And so Operation Santa was born.
Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the Operation Santa program has since evolved into a multicity enterprise, with each sponsoring location working together with individuals, local businesses, charitable organizations, and corporations to meet needs from coast to coast. New York City, the birthplace of the program, still receives the most letters (more than 500,000 each year), but dozens of other areas have signed up to host their own 2012 programs.
Any letters addressed to “Santa Claus, North Pole” remain in the area where they were mailed. Postal “elves” then sort through these letters, setting aside any that express great need and removing any personal contact information. At that point, individuals wishing to respond on Santa’s behalf can go to their local Post Office, choose a letter that touches them and fits their budget, and return to the Post Office with their gift ready to mail to the child. The Postal Service ensures that all the packages make their way to the right destinations.
Those packages can include anything from toothbrushes to clothes to computers. “These children are wishing for the moon,” says Pete Fontana, Operation Santa’s chief elf. “They’re asking for what they can’t afford, what their parents can’t give them.”
“One year we had a letter that had a special-needs wheelchair," Fontana adds. "The wheelchair cost over $20,000 to purchase. I made sure that this particular letter made it into the daily newspaper here. The next day, I had that wheelchair."
It’s just one heartwarming example of countless tales Fontana could tell about the generosity of program participants. Even during economically hard-hit years such as 2010, the New York City location pulled in “boxes to the ceiling — literally,” he says. “They had to bring tractor-trailers in to take out all of the boxes for Santa Claus.”
And hopes are high for 2012. If all goes according to plan, the reindeer can expect even more of a workout — one that’s worthy of this special program’s anniversary.
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