For her first experience as a stand-in for Santa, Carolyn Reed chose a letter from a 12-year-old who wants a remote-controlled car, a pair of Timberlands, size 8 1/2, and a bed frame.
"My mom is very sick. She has kidney failure, so she can't do much for the family. I wish I could help her but I am stuck in this wheelchair for now," the boy had written in careful printing.
The toy car and the boots she could understand, said Reed, 45, a school crossing guard in Southwest Philadelphia. But the bed frame? "I was born with club feet," the letter continued. "And I do have trouble getting in and out of my bed because its on the floor."
Reed held back her tears. She had learned from her sister about Operation Santa, a U.S. Postal Service program that has been around for 100 years and has become an important part of the agency's Christmas-time tradition, though it receives no government funding. It allows ordinary people to grant the wishes of children and families in need simply by going to their local post office and requesting a letter to Santa Claus.
Like Reed, thousands of individuals and businesses in Philadelphia, South Jersey - throughout the country, really - will stand in for Santa this year, buying, wrapping and personally delivering presents in his name.
"It's heart-wrenching," Reed whispered, holding the letter tight to her chest. "But I feel good that I can do something."
As an "unofficial" program, Operation Santa has only a few firm rules: the individual offering help must come in personally to choose a letter, show identification, and sign a form pledging to protect the privacy of the family he or she is helping. Outside of those restrictions, post offices nationwide are free to run Operation Santa programs according to their needs - setting their own days and hours.
"In the decades we've been doing this, we've never once had a problem," says Cathy Yarosky, a postal service spokeswoman. "And we want to keep it like that."
In Philadelphia, the main post office at 30th and Chestnut Streets is busiest. Crystal Brown-Cooper, a letter carrier who dresses in full elf regalia for this part of the job, runs the desk Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Dec. 22.
Letters started arriving in October, Brown-Cooper says. Nearly 500 were chosen in the first two days of Operation Santa here at 30th Street and her table was flush with more yesterday. She sorts the letters by the number of children in the family, so benefactors who are able can pick a family with eight or nine children, while others can select a single child.
Spanish-speaking postal workers translate the letters, when necessary, and Brown-Cooper says there are more letters written in Spanish this year.
There are more, too, from grandparents raising grandchildren alone; more letters from young single mothers in need of diapers, blankets and baby clothes; more letters that mention the loss of a job or health benefits; more requests for winter coats and hats.
"The thing that gets to me," Brown-Cooper says, "is that they ask for clothes. Even the children themselves. They say they want a doll or a Power Ranger, but they also say they need pants and shirts and sneakers."
No one seems to know precisely how Operation Santa started, Yarosky says.
For as long as children have written letters to Santa, it seems, their poignant, misspelled missives have reached letter carriers kind enough to help and involve customers in the effort.
"I think the program continues because employees love to be part of it," Yarosky says, "and customers appreciate it."
Often, an individual familiar with Operation Santa will write on behalf of a family in the neighborhood. Social workers submit letters from the needy families they serve.
Closer to Christmas, Brown-Cooper says, she expects to see whole families coming in to select letters that start with the words Dear Santa. These will be middle-income parents with their school-age children.
"They want the kids to see how fortunate and blessed they are and learn how to give back," Brown-Cooper says. "Many times this is their gift to their child - they pay the expense of the child's participation in Operation Santa."
Kyra Lutz, 32, who lives in South Jersey and works for a Philadelphia-based consulting firm, left 30th Street yesterday with a batch of letters. She'll answer one letter herself, she said, and the rest with her circle of friends.
"We're all single, without kids of our own," Lutz explained, "so we do this together instead of giving gifts to each other."
One moment, Brown-Cooper says, she's overwhelmed by the need. The next, she's flabbergasted by the generous response of strangers.
Yolanda Greene, who is 33 and in her fourth year as a Santa's helper, took home 10 letters yesterday. The bonus she expects to receive from her job as a credit union manager will cover the cost of the gifts, Greene said. "When people ask me what I want for Christmas, I say give me cash, so I can fulfill other people's wishes."
Operation Santa, the U.S. Postal Service program that allows individuals and groups to help needy children by answering letters addressed to Santa Claus, continues now through Dec. 22.
There are several ways to participate: through the main post office at 30th Street in Philadelphia; through a post office closer to your home in Pennsylvania or New Jersey, or through the non-profit Dear Santa Society.
The Dear Santa Society
P.O. Box 123
Eagleville, Pa. 19408
3000 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, Pa. 19104