Changes made to Oper. Santa program

December 20, 2008 3:06:13 PM PST
A sex offender has taken some of the joy out of the Postal Service's Operation Santa program.Post Office puts buffer between kids and 'Santas' By VERENA DOBNIK Associated Press Writer NEW YORK (AP) - A sex offender is responsible for taking away some of the joy of the Postal Service's Operation Santa program: Volunteers who answer children's letters to Santa can no longer deliver gifts in person - or even know where they're going.

The program resumed on Saturday morning in New York and Chicago, three days after it was abruptly suspended after a postal worker in Maryland recognized one volunteer as a registered offender.

It was a shocking moment for the effort that started in New York's main post office almost a century ago. Back then, postal clerks answered Santa's mail, buying food and toys for children. Over the years, the number of letters increased and the program was opened to the public in post offices around the country.

For some gift-givers, one of the personal pleasures was to show up and surprise needy kids at home - after rifling through piles of letters and envelopes looking for a story that tugged at their heartstrings.

Now, those opportunities for face-to-face contact are gone.

Volunteers will no longer have access to the children's last names or addresses.

At New York City's main post office on Saturday, each letter had been removed from its envelope and photocopied, with the child's family name blocked out, if it happened to appear in the text. The addresses were replaced with codes that match computerized addresses known only to the post office.

What remained, though, was no less heart wrenching.

In neat handwriting, a 10-year-old Bronx girl named Jennifer said her father couldn't work because his kidneys were failing and he was undergoing dialysis.For her and her two sisters, she told Santa, "anything you send me will make me happy."

After showing a photo ID, each volunteer was handed five letters at a time to choose from at tables in back of the lobby where people also wrapped and boxed gifts for mailing.

"It's sad that people can't take their gifts to children and give personally anymore," said Brian Pavlock. The 25-year-old, who works in finance, came to the post office on Saturday to participate in the program with 11-year-old Tristen Ellis.

Together, they wrapped toys to send to another 11-year-old "who is less fortunate than I am," Tristen said.

The boy didn't know why this year, the pair's second Operation Santa experience, they didn't get a name and address. Pavlock explained to him that something "bad" could happen if, say, a robber got hold of a family's address.

It was an adult's effort to soften reality for a child.

On Wednesday, the program was temporarily suspended after a postal worker in Maryland recognized that one volunteer who had taken a child's letter as a registered sex offender. A postal inspector retrieved the letter before the individual could answer it, but the U.S. Postal Service decided changes had to be made.

While the program operates in many metropolitan areas across the country, most are done for the holidays. But New York and Chicago still have enough volume to continue into next week.

In New York, where about a half million letters from as far away as China arrived this year, boxes of letters were sorted geographically by the city's five boroughs, with a special section for the large number of letters in Spanish.

One volunteer in the program, Brian Bates, a 45-year-old father from Manhattan who bought clothing and toys for three families, said he understood why things had to change.

"As a parent, I'm much more comfortable with people not having the personal information," he said. "I don't think the kids know the difference - as long as they have a present to rip open under the Christmas tree."

Going forward, the volunteers will still pick out the gifts and pay the postage, but a computer will match the letter to the right address and the post office will deliver the package.

"The spirit of giving is still there, making somebody's Christmas a little brighter," said post office spokesman George Flood. "But the times have changed. So the Operation Santa program had to change."

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