’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house / Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
But in the three weeks leading up to that night? That mouse might be pretty busy, clicking away to make magic for loads of little ones facing bleak holidays — at least that is what the U.S. Postal Service is hoping.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and this year some of his helpers will be browsing and bookmarking: At 106 years old, Operation Santa is going digital in select cities.
After an online test launch in New York last December, the USPS program that fulfills wish lists from hundreds of thousands of small voices every year is making the job of Secret Santa a little easier. If you are in Austin, Indianapolis, New York, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Washington and San Diego, you can now adopt Santa letters from needy kids by firing up the laptop and going to delivercheer.com Dec. 3-22.
And if you prefer old school, the “legacy” version of Operation Santa, where letters can be adopted in person, will continue at more than a dozen locations across the country.
The goal with the digital inroads is simple, said Kim Frum, a spokeswoman for the Postal Service. “It will help us help more families and kids in need in their communities,” she said, by giving harried holiday folks another option to open their hearts.
“The ultimate reward is the knowledge that someone’s life is a little better because you were able to help,” she said.
The Postal Service began fielding Santa letters more than 100 years ago. In 1912, Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock authorized local postmasters to allow postal employees and citizens to respond to the missives — and Operation Santa was born. By the 1940s, the trickle of Santa mail had become a deluge, and the Postal Service invited charities and corporations to don their elf hats.
Operation Santa is now a bustling enterprise that connects anonymous donors with those in the shadows nationwide. Postal employees, schools, charities, community groups, businesses and private citizens answer letters and mail gifts. There are strict privacy guidelines.
The digital experiment last year at Manhattan's James A. Farley Post Office paved the way for this year’s expansion, Frum said. About 5,000 letters were adopted from the 7,100 uploaded to New York’s digital site.
In often plain-spoken language, the children’s hard-luck stories, secret yearnings and distant dreams make for compelling prose. They ask for toys, games, clothes and food, some for them, some for their siblings — even jobs for their parents. “It can truly be heart-wrenching to read some of the requests,” Frum said.
Jeniffer, 12, didn’t waste time telling Santa who was No. 1 on her wish list in a letter last year. “We live with our mother who works very hard to provide us food and to pay the rent,” she wrote. “I will like to ask if you could please help us with some clothes and shoes.”
She listed the sizes for her mom and little sister, and added: “Can you please send my mom something? She works so hard for us and she deserves the best.”
And kids aren’t the only letter writers; parents often appeal for help as well. Gloria, an 18-year-old single mom of 10-month-old Peyton, said she lived with her own mother who took care of the tot while she was in school. “So I don’t ask for much,” Gloria wrote. “But I would like some things for her like some books cause I like to read to her as much as I can. Some toys for her age and maybe some clothes.”
Not all of the letters get answered, Frum said. But the Postal Service always hopes for the best.
“Everyone involved in the program — whether legacy or digital — knows that even answering just one letter, means there is one more person, family or child who has something to smile about at this time of year,” she said.
Despite the tech steps forward, there is no digital equivalent of Santa comin’ down the chimney: No matter how you adopt a letter — online or in-person — donors must still go to the designated post office to mail the gifts.
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