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Where Santa is never ‘addressee unknown’

Postal Service strives to honor children’s pleas

The Fort Point Post Office displays children’s letters. The Fort Point Post Office displays children’s letters. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)
By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / December 18, 2010

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Some of the letters bear innocent wishes that even Santa Claus cannot deliver.

“I want peace for the whole world,’’ wrote a girl named Isabela, “and also a bike.’’

“Dear Santa Claus, for Christmas I would like a new puppy,’’ wrote Amber. “Make sure she’s cute. I would also like my little brother to not speak anymore. He’s annoying.’’

And then there are wishes of a different nature, sent by parents, not by children, asking for things they are embarrassed they cannot deliver.

“I am in desperate need of help for Christmas,’’ wrote a 24-year-old full-time student and mother of a boy, 5, who loves action figures, sports, books, and educational games. “I would greatly appreciate any help for Christmas this year.’’

“I need some help with Christmas gifts for my children this year,’’ wrote a mother of two boys who asked not only for electronic toys and musical instruments, but also clothing and shoes, in sizes 3 and 4.

The letters to Santa and displayed at the Fort Point Post Office bear witness to the gaping distance between the haves and have-nots.

The Fort Point postal center on Dorchester Avenue is the Boston headquarters and the only area collection spot for Operation Santa, a two-pronged program of the US Postal Service.

Through Operation Santa, the Postal Service sends some young letter-writers replies from Santa Claus with postmarks from the North Pole. It also pairs needy families with anonymous donors who play Santa Claus by buying and mailing items the children want.

In the third year of a dismal economy, the requests are soaring and fewer people have stepped up to provide gifts, said Dennis P. Tarmey, spokesman for the Postal Service in Boston.

Most heartbreakingly, he said, many more are requesting needs rather than wants: clothing and necessities over Spiderman toys.

“It was definitely moving when we started reading the letters,’’ said R’Sha Harris of Boston, one of two postal workers running Operation Santa this year.

The number of families asking help reached a record, at 1,100, up from 730 last year, said Tarmey. But by yesterday morning, fewer than 200 people had signed up to provide gifts.

But a parade of well-wishers poured into the Fort Point Post Office yesterday afternoon, after the Postal Service issued urgent requests for help and extended its program through Monday, the busiest mail day of the year.

Donors can pick up letters through Monday and drop off the gifts and pay for postage at the Fort Point Post Office through Tuesday.

The Postal Service redacts all addresses and lets donors see only each child’s first name, age, and wish list.

(Last year, in Maryland, a volunteer fielding children’s letters in Maryland was recognized as a registered sex offender, sparking concerns about children’s safety and privacy.)

Just reading the letters of families’ requests was emotional for some would-be donors. Yesterday, one woman wiped away tears as she read letters, saying how hard it was to choose which family to help.

Another man, thanked by a postal worker for his donation, said he remembered the way his father worked to provide a Christmas for his family of 10 children.

After hearing that so many families that wrote to Operation Santa were not likely to get help, Atiya Younger of Roslindale showed up to try to narrow the gap.

She left carrying the wish lists of four large families, with plans to distribute the load among her own relatives.

“Everyone’s struggling,’’ said Younger. “I’m struggling too, but everybody can do a little bit.’’

Erin Keaveney, 25, a freelance public relations specialist, also signed up to help for the first time.

“I know it’s a tough time for the economy,’’ she said. “I just feel so blessed for the way I grew up, and if I can help in some small way to make a kid’s Christmas, then I will. It’s not too hard to pick up a letter.’’

Most of the year, the US Postal Service, which pays for itself and receives no taxpayer funding, is fighting for survival in a world that increasingly forsakes snail mail for instant messaging.

The Postal Service works with schools throughout the year to familiarize youngsters with stamps and with good, old-fashioned letter-writing.

“It’s kind of like a lost art now,’’ Jim Holland, Boston postmaster, said of letter-writing. “Kids are just getting on e-mail instead. Now, even e-mails are becoming dinosaurs because of texting.’’

But Christmas is peak time for the Postal Service. The busiest mailing day of the year is Dec. 20, when 801 million letters, cards, and packages are expected to be processed (up from 559 million pieces on the average day).

It is also when many children encounter the US Postal Service for the first time.

They write letters by hand, asking Santa to bring them Wii games and laptops, and they send those letters out with stamps.

Yes, Virginia, there is a mailman.

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.

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