Dear Santa: Times are tough

Post office workers answer letters, reach out to needy

By David Filipov
Globe Staff / December 5, 2008
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The letters are piling up with the usual Yuletide requests for Wiis, PlayStations, and $400 Lego Death Stars, laboriously written in children's block letters and sweetened with offers of cookies and promises to be good.

But this year another, more somber, kind of letter to Santa is appearing with regularity on the fourth floor of the US Post Office's South Postal Annex in Fort Point: pleas for help from the newly unemployed, the recently homeless, and from the children watching their parents sink in the recession.

"Dear Santa," a 10-year-old boy wrote. "My mother is becoming so depressed and sad because she only has money to pay the bills and buy food for us to eat. Father is in prison so mom doesn't get help."

Every time a child in Greater Boston sends a letter to Santa, it ends up in the hands of postal workers who call themselves "Santa's helpers." They sort the letters on their breaks, during lunch hour, and after work; they don't get paid extra for the job. If there's a return address, they send a response in an envelope inscribed, "Santa Claus, North Pole." "The reindeers and I will be in your neighborhood on Christmas Eve," reads the prewritten letter on cheery red or green stationery, "so make sure you're fast asleep when we get to your house."

While the children are writing to the North Pole, parents of a growing number of needy families are writing desperate letters to Secret Santa, a Christmastime charity that the Boston district of the US Postal Service has been running quietly for four decades. Santa's helpers set aside those letters in a large cardboard box, divided by town. By Wednesday, they had received more than 200 requests. They expect to receive thousands more. Soon, they will need another box.

"Everybody's hurting," said Colleen Quan-Chin, a marketing clerk for the post office who has been volunteering as one of Santa's helpers for 13 years. "Some years, when we're in a better economy, you'll see requests for toys. This year they're asking for the necessities."

Santa's helpers have received letters with requests for winter coats and shoes. A disabled mother of six meticulously listed the shirt and pants sizes of each of her children. Many letters conveyed a note of desperation: What if Christmas doesn't come this year?

"I have been evicted from my apartment because my landlord lost the house to the bank," wrote Emily, a Roxbury mother of two boys, 2 and 4. "I don't know what to do for the holidays for my children. It would destroy me if I can't provide for them this holiday."

Charities throughout Boston are seeing the same surge of despair. Toys for Tots, which is run by the Marine Corps Reserve, has received 30 percent more requests for help than it got for the holiday season last year. The number of requests to Catholic Charities by families hoping that volunteers will donate gifts has tripled compared with this time last year. And Globe Santa has received 23,000 letters asking for help, a nearly 45 percent increase over what it received all of last year.

"It is a tough year," said Marguerite Courage, who heads up the processing of letters from families to Globe Santa. "There's a lot of new hurt."

Quan-Chin is used to seeing letters from mothers who are homeless or victims of domestic violence living in shelters. She said this is the first year she's gotten so many letters from single fathers. She shared all the letters on the condition that the Globe not print the authors' full names.

"I'm looking for work," wrote a father from Dorchester. "My worry is that they will not have anything from Santa this year."

Along with his request came a required letter from a social services agency attesting to the family's need.

On Monday, the Secret Santa Office will be open in the lobby of Fort Point Station, where postal workers will accept offers from the public to sponsor Christmas for the neediest families. The sponsors, said Quan-Chin, "buy whatever the family asks for or whatever they can." The sponsors then get the gifts to the parents when the children are at school or otherwise occupied - so that on Christmas morning they'll think the gifts came from Santa.

Santa's helpers, as with other Christmas charities, are worried that the ranks of donors will be thinned by a recession that is widely felt. The writers to Secret Santa are aware of that, too.

"Everything goes to rent, food, diapers," wrote a grocery store worker in Jamaica Plain who is a single father of two toddlers. "I know times are tough for everyone but if you can help I would appreciate it."

His son, 3, likes Spiderman and the characters from the "Madagascar" animated films. His daughter, 17 months old, likes dolls. What they both really need are clothes.

Many postal workers contribute to the families whose requests they sort. It's hard to read the letters all day and not want to help. The trickle of letters starts as early as August and becomes a torrent after Thanksgiving. Some arrive with postage, some without. Santa's helpers separate the desperate from the cute.

"Dear Santa: How are you? How is your wife?," wrote Javier. "Could I have a robo raptor?"

"Dear Mrs. Claus. I drew you a picture," wrote Mikayla. She made no request for a gift.

One letter had a dollar bill attached. The writer promised that if Santa sent her a pet cat or something "signed by Hannah Montana" that she would be good "my whole entire life."

She added, "PS: I will also make the best cookies ever."

One boy asked for an MP3 player, some CDs, and "to have no more wars and world peace." Another letter was sealed with so many staples that Santa's Helpers couldn't open it.

A homeless mother asked for shoes for her 5-year-old daughter. The girl also wrote.

"If you could help my mom this Christmas, we would be grateful," her letter said. "Thank you and God bless."

Starting Monday, the Secret Santa Office will be open in the lobby of Fort Point Station in the General Mail Facility at 25 Dorchester Ave. from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday until Dec. 24. The phone number is 617-654-5776. Sponsors need to bring a photo ID.

Filipov can be reached at

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