Sunday, December 24, 2000

Santa gets help from Postal Service

Agency helps provide for needy children

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In a gray bunker of a building near downtown Cincinnati, away from frenzied holiday shoppers and yuletide glee, the Christmas spirit percolates like an overheated coffee pot.

        It's happening right now at 1591 Dalton St., a building operated by the U.S. Postal Service and, considering the stress of the season, an unlikely place to catch the Christmas spirit.

[photo] Rhonda Cravens of Westwood, coordinator of the post office's Santa Workshop program, sorts gifts donated for the neediest children who write to Santa.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        But the post office is working harder than expected these days. In addition to answering every letter addressed to Santa Claus, ranging from the needy to the greedy, it is also helping to deliver several hundred special packages to disadvantaged kids and families.

        Children's letters represent a fascinating cross section of American society.

        While one boy pasted up color photographs of each toy he wants — and totaled the cost — another asked Santa to bring him enough food for the week.

        A girl from suburban Liberty Township in Butler County had other dreams.

        “Am I really an elf?” she asked Santa. “I think I am because I have pointy ears and sometimes when I laugh, I squeak. If I am an elf, can I go on your sled?”

        “Last year, we answered 800 letters — only those with return addresses, of course,” said Rhonda Cravens of Westwood, coordinator of the post office's Santa Workshop program. “We sent the kids special postcards from Santa. But we don't send postcards to needy kids. We don't want to give them the idea that Santa will be visiting them.”

        But all is not lost on this special night. Workers have again matched the requests of needy kids with private donors, who buy and wrap gifts and deliver them to 1591 Dalton for distribution by postal employees.

        “Some letters indicate a real need,” said Bonni Manies, a post office spokeswoman. “You know there's a need when a child writes to Santa to request food and underwear.”

        Not only the children will bene fit. Families will, too. In recent years, donors have bought wedding rings for an elderly couple who could never afford them in 44 years, and a tombstone for a child.

        The program began in Cincinnati in 1987, when employees opened mail to Santa and noticed some unusual requests. Every year since, they have helped. So have other major post offices across the country.

        Sponsors — corporate employees and individuals — “adopt” a child or family with names supplied by the post office. Last year, Santa supplied the needs of 376 children and families. By the end of today, Ms. Cravens said, about 400 people and families will receive help.

        The names come from the region because most local post offices send their letters to the Cincinnati office.

        “That's the beauty of the pro gram,” Ms. Manies said. “This is the community helping the community, although nobody knows one another — or who did what. But it makes everyone feel good. I think it's the most worthwhile program that we're involved in.”

        Some postal-delivery people will dress up like Santa to deliver the packages, which include new computers, televisions, beds and toys. In all cases, the gifts fill a need — and sometimes a dream.

        “The kids really will be surprised to see Santa,” Ms. Manies said.

        Unfortunately, the old man from the North Pole just can't meet every special need, despite his immense power.

        “We received two letters from women who want Santa to bring them a man this Christmas,” Ms. Cravens said.

        “My, people certainly have a lot of faith in the U.S. Postal Service,” Ms. Manies said.

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