Santa's special deliveries

Volunteers grant Christmas wishes culled from letters sent to the post office from children and the needy

December 10, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Reporter

Their Christmas list was simple this year:

1. Pick five Santa letters.

2. Buy gifts for the five families.

3. Deliver gifts.

"That's the best part," says Lynette Hancock, "we deliver the gifts on Christmas Eve."

One afternoon last week, Pete and Lynette Hancock of Harford County rifled through a fat stack of "Needy" Santa letters at the post office in downtown Baltimore. "Operation Santa" is the Postal Service's nearly century-old program that matches wish lists with volunteers. The main post office on Fayette Street participates every year. Some of the first people to volunteer were the Hancocks, who took an hour to select their needy families. As always, it wasn't easy reading.

"I'm seeing a theme here. Baltimore Gas and Electric bills," says Pete Hancock, a manager of an automobile consulting company.

Among other dire needs, some parents and grandparents this year are asking Santa for help with their steep BGE bills. Hancock and his wife don't help with the electric bills because they don't donate money. But they can and do help people who need coats, socks or shoes for their children. They also respond to special requests.

"Last year, we bought children's Bibles for a family," Lynette Hancock says. They are also selective about who they write. Grandparents themselves, the Hancocks gravitate toward letters from grandparents who have been left to raise the children. There's no shortage of those letters.

"Here's a grandmother with nine grandchildren. My goodness," says Lynette Hancock, starting a pile. The Hancocks will spread their five letters among other family members; five letters for one family would be beyond the call of duty. The grandmother with the nine grandchildren included shirt, coat and shoe sizes for all her grandchildren. For now, the letter is on top of the Hancock pile.

This is their fourth year volunteering for Operation Santa, which works a bit differently this year. Because of the volume of letters and as a precautionary measure, letters will no longer be mailed or faxed to the public. Those wishing to adopt a letter need to come to the post office, show a photo ID and sign a legal waiver. Schools, businesses and charities must follow the same rules.

There's never been an incident in which a child was harmed or threatened through the letters program, Postal Service officials say, but they decided this year to stop giving out letters with children's addresses and phone numbers to anyone.

"Unfortunately, we live in an age where we just can't be careful enough -- especially in regard to our children," says Postal Service spokeswoman Freda Sauter in Baltimore. Last week, Sauter politely asked the Hancocks for their photo IDs and asked them to sign the legal waiver.

Then, they went back to auditioning letters. Postal employees also read letters every year, with one department at the main post office adopting an orphanage this holiday.

The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Santa letters that come through the main post office (commonly addressed as "North Pole, USA") are roughly divided into two piles: Needy and Not Needy. The mixed bag offers volunteers the heavy-hearted and lighthearted side of the holidays. For every story of basic clothing needs, soaring electric bills or grave illnesses, there are letters from kids who want, well, what kids want. Lots of stuff. Wii games. IPods. Cell phones. PlayStation 3. A Mac laptop.

Sometimes, though, old-school stuff still makes the list.

"Dear Santa,

"If you please, may I have a turtle in a bowl or tank? Pritty please could I be your friend?" wrote a Baltimore boy named Freddie. "P.S. Please respond to me."

From Sherwood, a young girl named Marina wants slippers, Silly Putty, a Pocahontas dress and a daily organizer from Santa. First, she has fences to mend.

"I have been a good girl this year except for some incidents. I would say my halo is a bit crooked at the moment, but I will try to change things as much as possible," Marina wrote. "My biggest regret is the cell phone problem." She did not elaborate on the extent of the "cell phone problem."

Annie from Clarksville securely taped a Snickers bar, Dum Dum and licorice stick to her Santa letter. Sweet bribery, one could say without malice.

"Exactly," says Pete Hancock.

James from Ellicott City got to the point as only a Santa letter can. The boy wants a Wii. No other toy, thank you very much.

"But if not a Wii game, what I really want this year is to be taller," James said in his postscript. "I want to be taller the most out of anything."

It's fun to read this pile of letters; they provide comic relief in contrast to letters such as this one from a sick elderly woman in Baltimore who cares for five grandchildren. "It is so hard every day. I get so worried, but I keep praying," she wrote. "Clothes would be a blessing."

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