Every year, millions of children write letters to Santa. When he can't get to everything on a kid's wish list, Santa sometimes forwards the requests to helpers at the US Post Office. The program is called "Operation Santa" - and South Los Angeles is one of the areas with the highest number of letters in the nation. The California Report's Steven Cuevas has the story.
One of the largest receiving areas in the nation for these letters is in South Los Angeles.
The stacks of mail that arrive for Santa at the mammoth U.S. Postal Service center on South Central Avenue come from children across the region.
“I think this little girl is asking for Play-Doh. It says, 'Dear Santa, this year I have been nice. I want a play-doh-doh-doh,'” laughs Francis Chi, a teaching assistant at California State University, Los Angeles.
“I decided this was my week of Christmas giving,” says Chi. “I normally don’t have time to really help out in my community and this seemed like a good place to start.”
On a recent weekday morning, Chi joined about two dozen other people at the USPS center to select a handful of these letters and hopefully, says Operation Santa volunteer organizer Patrick Reynolds, make a sack-full of wishes come true.
“For 101 years, the USPS has been giving out letters to Santa Claus,” explains Reynolds, “often from needy kids asking for food and clothes. The public can come down and adopt a letter and send that child gifts. There’s no middle man, no charity involved when you volunteer in that way,” he says.
Some kids won’t get everything they ask for; like the one requesting nearly $2,000 in gift cards. Francis Chi finds a kid asking for a lot less, yet asking for much, much more.
The letter reads: “Hi, how are you Santa? I’m not getting anything for Christmas this year because I already have a beautiful family and beautiful cousins too. I just want you to give the orphans what they (want); a mom and a dad. For the homeless I want you to give them their family and of course food too.”
Chi says she’ll get a special gift for that child. And, she says, maybe even a handwritten letter of thanks from Mrs. Claus herself.
The USPS says people can pick letters from any kids they wish. But Patrick Reynolds prefers to steer people to the neediest. He launched an independent, grassroots effort 10 years ago “BeAnElf.org” to draw attention to Operation Santa and help publicize its mission.
He says the USPS does a great job running Operation Santa. But he wishes more post offices would participate. Only five postal centers in California (in Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Santa Clarita, Sacramento and San Francisco) have Operation Santa stations.
According to BeAnElf.org, 75 USPS branches participated in 2011. In 2012 that number dwindled to 25. And last year just 17 post offices across the country took part in Operation Santa.
“We want more people to know about it and volunteer,” says Patrick Reynolds.
“And if you’re alone and sad right now, get up out of your chair, come on down to the post office and you will catch the real spirit of Christmas.”
Choosing which kids to buy gifts for isn’t always so easy. Each one can tug at a person’s heartstrings. Like the one from a little girl asking for just one thing — some shoes for her brother. Another child asks for a rotating fan when it’s hot.
Many children give a peek into the struggles of families just trying to keep their heads above water.
“Dear Santa, I write to you this year because my parents don’t have any money to buy any presents,” begins one letter. “My dad lost his job and we are barely making it through. I was wondering if you could make my simple wish come true? Bring me a color Gameboy if it is not too much trouble.”
But not all the Santa letters come from children.
“Dear Santa Claus, my name is Guadalupe. I am 33 years old. I am a single mom and a housekeeper,” begins another. “I was planning to buy my kids new beds for Christmas. Unfortunately the ones we saw in the store are too expensive.”
The woman goes on to explain that she needs two twin-sized beds for her boys. She makes little money and struggles to pay her bills. She makes her appeal directly to Santa Claus, never once to the volunteer or postal worker who may actually read her letter.
“If you could help me I’ll be very thankful Santa, and God bless you for making people happy.”
One can imagine a parent sitting down to write a letter to Santa to indulge a child’s fantasy. Others may be aware of Operation Santa and hope some kind-hearted stranger may see their letter.
“The mothers aren’t writing because they're living in Beverly Hills,” says Patrick Reynolds. “They’re writing because they have real needs, and they seem sad and they’re in real need. And so I began answering the mothers' letters equally with the childrens,'” says Reynolds.
The USPS in Los Angeles estimates that it receives several thousand letters to Santa each year. Because of the sheer volume, just a fraction will get answered.
Even so, the elves of Operation Santa LA are on pace to deliver gifts to about 1,500 needy kids this year, nearly three times the number delivered last year.