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Left Book Operation Santa Responses
by Harper, Timothy
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Gerry Takahashi, a computer programmer who travels the world, made a special trip to New York City one December weekend last year. He spent that Saturday morning sitting on the floor of the central post office in Manhattan, sorting through letters to Santa Claus from poor children. And he’s going to do it again this year.

Takahashi is one of the tens of thousands of good-hearted souls who participate in Operation Santa Claus – many of them Delta passengers who, like him, first learned of the program from the pages of Sky. For six decades, postal volunteers have spent their Decembers coming in early and staying late to help people select letters to Santa from poor children and then send them Christmas gifts. Often, those are the only gifts those children receive.

My story about Operation Santa Claus first ran in Sky in December 1997 and was repeated in November 1998. Sandra Calos, the postal executive who oversees Operation Santa Claus, said Sky readers have provided gifts for thousands of children. Here’s a passage from the original story:

Sitting down and reading the letters is a riveting experience, like peering through a window into these children’s lives. One child encloses a picture of a Rolex watch he has cut out of a magazine advertisement and advises, “I have been good almost every day.” Another asks for a computer and helpfully provides the brand name and specifications for speed, memory, etc. Another asks for a Boston Whaler fishing boat and says he is writing early so that Santa can stock up on fiberglass in his workshop.

Many children have included suggested retail prices. Some, no doubt true New Yorkers who believe “Thou shalt not pay retail” is the 11th Commandment, give Santa tips on where their gifts can be purchased on sale.

“P.S. I love your elves,” one little girl scrawls.

“I love you and I will always believe in you,” one charming little fellow writes. Then he asks for two toy guns.

“I live in Coney Island,” one girl writes. “Do you ever come there?”

One boy writes a mini-biography and then, “I’d like something for Christmas.” Anything is fine, he says, because he “didn’t get nothing” last year.

One girl asks for “pencils for school” and says it is important because she wants to be a secretary when she grows up.

One child asks for a new bed, another for snow boots. Many children request gifts for their brothers and sisters. One girl wants something for an aunt whose house has burned down. Brian asks for something for his 2-year-old sister. Edith says her mom can’t pay the electric bill and asks for winter clothes.

Some letters are from parents. Michelle writes that she is “blessed” to have her son but can’t afford to buy him anything this year. Carmen, who lost her job because she couldn’t find anyone to baby-sit, asks for clothing, “even used” clothing, for her three daughters “so the other kids could stop making fun of the way they dress.”

As I sit reading letters, dozens of other people come in and out of the Operation Santa Claus headquarters, located during the month of December in a side room of the post office at 33rd Street and Eighth Avenue, behind Madison Square Garden. Some people seem to be settled in for the day, reading letter after letter as if savoring a delicious novel. Others blow in, read fast, grab a letter and blow out. When the chairs are all occupied, people sit on the floor to read. One young couple in expensive suits take a businesslike approach, making stacks of letters and scribbling notes on possible candidates.

Many people gathered around the central table spontaneously read portions of the letters aloud, and others comment. Some blink back a tear or two as they read. The mix of people is as varied as on any New York subway car at rush hour, except there is eye contact. Lots of it. These people, recognizing each other as good souls, commiserate and converse in the familiar tones of old friends rather than big-city strangers. The very best of New York sparkles to life every December in that little room.

Gerry Takahashi described a similar experience when he went to Operation Santa Claus. “There were people everywhere making notes,” he said, “and several were shedding tears. One of the volunteers made an announcement about classrooms writing letters. I decided to read these letters and found one that really touched my heart.” A teacher had sent in letters to Santa from all 22 of her students, and included a note saying that most of the kids didn’t have enough winter clothing to keep them warm.

Takahashi spent much of December shopping, and got each of the 22 kids a scarf, a hat, gloves and a toy that each one had requested. Most of the boys asked for yo-yos, while the girls asked for dolls. One girl, however, wrote that she didn’t have a winter coat, so Takahashi bought one for her. “I remembered when I was a child, it was the thrill of opening presents that made Christmas such an experience, so my dad helped me wrap all the presents individually,” Takahashi said. He and his dad worked late into the night wrapping the 88 presents, but the hours passed quickly. They got up early and took the presents to the post office the next morning.

Judging from the responses from other Sky readers, Takahashi’s gifts were typical. Children might ask for computer games and other expensive toys, but what they get are winter clothes and simple toys. One Sky reader, Kristine Hillary, likes to send some of the books she loved as a kid, such as A Wrinkle in Time and Little Women. “The experience made us feel good to know that we had hopefully brought some joy to a few people,” Hillary said. “It also brought my husband and I closer while we were doing the shopping, it was really fun, and it made us thankful for all that we were so lucky to have.”

Many Sky readers reported getting not only their families involved, but their friends, too. “The letters were so compelling,” said Cheryl Mendonsa. “You want to take them all. I took way too many then browbeat my best friends to join me. They gave in pretty easily and enthusiastically. We spent the entire day shopping, wrapping and mailing…We were broke and exhausted, but decided we were really living the spirit of Christmas, and it felt good.”

A number of Sky readers discovered Operation Santa Claus programs in their own cities and towns, and some took it upon themselves to start local programs. Richard Nebeker took the Sky story home and helped the East Idaho Rotary Club start an Operation Santa Claus program for poor kids in Idaho Falls.

Some Sky readers, such as Lori Fletcher, participate in Operation Santa Claus instead of spending money on cards or small gifts for friends, relatives and business associates or clients. For Fletcher, who takes more letters every year and is now up to several dozen, Operation Santa is a year-round preoccupation. “I find myself irresistibly drawn to clearance sales on Barbie's, board games and stuffed animals,” Fletcher said. “I can’t wait to get those letters in December!”

Gerry Takahashi will be back at Operation Santa Claus, too. “I have already made my plans to be at the post office bright and early,” he said. “To be honest, I do not know if I will adopt another classroom. But who knows what I will find when I make my visit to the post office this year.”

Well, we know what Gerry Takahashi and tens of thousands of other generous souls, including many of you reading this, will find by participating in Operation Santa Claus. You’ll find the true spirit of Christmas.



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Additional Information

From Sky magazine, November 1999.



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