People seem to get annoyed when I talk about this after the fact, and ask why I didn't tell them about it in advance. Well, here you go!
Every year, kids mail out letters addressed to "Santa Claus" and many (all?) get re-routed to an Operation Santa Claus post office, where volunteers can respond to the letters and mail gifts. Some kids know they're writing to volunteers, and some truly think they're writing to Santa. Many parents also write in on their kids' behalf or add to their childrens' letters before mailing them.
I didn't expect to cry when I did Operation Santa Claus, but it's hard not to. Some letters are so beautifully innocent, and others are written with so much love. Mothers that write in are truly amazing. They make things so easy. They often tell you the ages of each kid, what their interests are, and what their clothing sizes are. I love these moms.
It helps to go in knowing what kind of letters you're looking for. Maybe you want to buy one big gift for a large family (like a Wii), or maybe you only want to respond to letters that request daily necessities like shoes, coats, and food. Maybe you're looking for a certain age range, or only boys or girls. Maybe, you only want to answer letters from kids who are asking for toys. Having an idea of what kinds of gifts you want to buy (and how much you want to spend total) will make it easier to sort through the letters. You may completely change your mind once you're there, but I think it helps to have a plan.
I prefer to answer young kids' requests for toys (or parents' requests for toys for young kids). To me, that's what Christmas is about. TOYS! And that's what I'm good at buying. Believe me, most kids don't want me picking out their clothes! I know there are some children who really need a down jacket and schoolbooks, but it's not in my budget, and I know there are other volunteers who are specifically looking for those kids, so I leave those letters for them.
About the letters: Before you can read through letters, you need to show some kind of ID and fill out a quick form. Then you can read through as many letters as you'd like while you're there. You'll only be given a few at a time, but you can return the ones you're not interested in and get more. I think there's a limit to how many you can choose to keep and reply to. It might have been six when I was last there, but keep in mind that many letters contain requests for more than one child. ("Me and my two brothers" or "My four children, ages 2, 6, 10 and 12" etc.)
The past two years I haven't been able to do Operation Santa Claus. Both years I had plans to go to the post office with friends and was then called out of town for the ENTIRE MONTH OF DECEMBER for emergencies. It was like some weird conspiracy. This year my friends and I have plans once again and I'm hoping to be able to follow through.
The rules seem to have changed since the last time I volunteered. Unlike before, you are no longer given any identifying information about the children. No last name, and no addresses. Just a code number (and their letter). I think the way it works now is you buy the gifts, then return to the post office and pack them up there, addressing them with the code number, which a postal employee then matches up to the correct address. Seems like a lot of extra work for the Post Office but, I admit, I was always uncomfortable knowing that these kids' names and addresses were given out in the past. I told myself that the people who wrote letters knew volunteers would be given their information and if they were ok with that, I should be too, but it still made me uneasy. I think this new way sounds safer. Still, it's going to be difficult to get back to the post office with gifts and send everything from there. It's easier for me to box everything and put it together at home.
Hopefully, I'll let you know how it all goes in a few weeks. That's when my friends and I are planning to go. -Unless I'm stuck out of town again. (Fingers crossed!)
For more information, you can visit the Operation Santa Claus Website. It's a bit outdated and not easy to navigate, but it might get you closer to finding an Operation Santa Claus location near you. You can also visit USPS.com and do a search for "Operation Santa Claus" (so far they still have 2009 info) or call your local Post Office for more current information.