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Letters to Santa program in need of donors

5:34 PM, Dec 20, 2013   |    comments
Kolas Eilon, 36, of Washington, D.C., sorts through letters at his neighborhood post office. (Photo: Natalie DiBlasio)
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Pete Fontana is the Chief Elf. And his job is to make Christmas come alive for hundreds of thousands of needy children.

But it's not all holiday cheer in Santa's USPS workshop. The yuletide mission is getting to be harder and harder to accomplish.

Fontana, in charge of the Post Office's New York Operation Santa, matches children's letters to Santa with donors in the community who are able to fill their holiday wishes. Sadly, more than half of the letters will go unanswered this Christmas.

"This year, letters are mostly on the sad side - you wouldn't believe the desperation," Fontana says. "You really can get a feel for what the economy is like. A little girl wrote a letter to Santa and asked for a wheelchair for grandma, she didn't even ask for anything for herself."

Nationwide, 17 post offices give people a chance to read letters to Santa written by starry-eyed children or needy parents who are simply asking for a little joy over the holidays. The volunteers can purchase a gift or write a letter back.

The largest operation is New York City, which gets hundreds of volunteers every day and an average of 500,000 letters a year. Other locations include: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Cincinnati and Houston.

"A lot of the kids do more than send in a wishlist," says USPS spokeswoman Darleen Reid-DeMeo. "They tell Santa stories, talk about their brother or their mother. They ask 'How is Mrs. Claus?'"

Fontana says the number of individuals coming in to pick up letters is declining. But more and more large companies like the Hughes Hubbard & Reed firm in New York City come in and take hundreds of letters to fulfill.

Harry Packman, managing attorney at Hughes Hubbard & Reed, says the day the company picks up the letters is his favorite day of the year.

"We have been doing it now for at least 14 years," Packman says. "One year we did close to 600 letters. I think it's more rewarding for the people at my firm than it is for the children."

Kolas Eilon, 36, of Washington, D.C., sorts through dozens of letters at his local post office. He is hung up on one letter in particular: it's from a young girl's whose mother was in a car accident. Her grandmother died a few days after her birthday. "The stories they tell are what's touching," he says. "It's hard to read through them."

For Toni Myers, dubbed Elf-in-Charge of the Washington, D.C. Operation Santa, the hardest part of the job is knowing that about half of the letters go unanswered.

"I wouldn't want to wake up Christmas Day if I was a child that didn't have anything," Myers says. "I wish we could get them all answered but I know we won't. That's the sad thing because I know they are in desperate need of help."

Yvette Ambrister, 47, of Staten Island and her son, Frederick, 17, have written to Operation Santa for four years. But Ambrister says they have never gotten a response.

This year, she reached out to Operation Santa for one of her close friends who died of throat cancer, leaving three children behind. "Those boys are all alone," Ambrister says. "They need a good Christmas. A few little gifts, a coat, scarf, winter boots, dinner."

Ambrister says she hopes this year is different. "I just hope someone can help," she says. "That would lighten up the holiday."

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