A sex offender is responsible for taking away some of the joy of the Postal Service's Operation Santa program: Volunteers who answer children's letters to Santa can no longer deliver gifts in person — or even know where they're going.
The program resumed on Saturday morning in New York and Chicago, three days after it was abruptly suspended when a postal worker in Maryland recognized one volunteer as a registered offender. A postal inspector intervened before the individual could answer a child's letter, but officials decided changes had to be made.
It was a shocking moment for the effort, which started in New York's main post office in the 1920s. Back then, postal clerks answered Santa's mail, buying food and toys for children. Over the years, the number of letters increased, and the program was opened to the public in post offices around the country.
For some gift-givers, one of the personal pleasures was to show up and surprise needy kids at home — after rifling through piles of letters and envelopes looking for a story that tugged at their heartstrings.
Now, those opportunities for face-to-face contact are gone. Volunteers will no longer have access to the children's last names or addresses.
At New York City's main post office on Saturday, each letter had been removed from its envelope and photocopied, with the child's family name blocked out, if it happened to appear in the text. The addresses were replaced with codes that match computerized addresses known only to the post office.
What remained, though, was no less heart-wrenching.
In neat handwriting, a 10-year-old Bronx girl named Jennifer said her father couldn't work because his kidneys were failing and he was undergoing dialysis. For her and her two sisters, she told Santa, "anything you send me will make me happy."
After showing a photo ID, each volunteer was handed five letters at a time to choose from at tables where people also wrapped and boxed gifts for mailing.
"It's sad that people can't take their gifts to children and give personally anymore," said Brian Pavlock. The 25-year-old, who works in finance, came to the post office on Saturday to participate in the program with 11-year-old Tristin Ellis; the two know each other through a big-brother volunteer program. Together, they wrapped toys to send to another 11-year-old "who is less fortunate than I am," Tristin said.
The boy didn't know why this year, the pair's second Operation Santa experience, they didn't get a name and an address. Pavlock explained to him that something "bad" could happen if, say, a robber got hold of a family's address.
It was an adult's effort to soften reality for a child.
While the program operates in many metropolitan areas across the country, most have finished answering letters for this year. But New York and Chicago still have enough volume to continue into next week.
In New York, where about a half-million letters from as far away as China arrived this year, boxes of letters were sorted geographically by the city's five boroughs, with a special section for the large number of letters in Spanish.
One volunteer, Brian Bates, a 45-year-old father from Manhattan who bought clothing and toys for three families, said he understood why things had to change.
"As a parent, I'm much more comfortable with people not having the personal information," he said. "I don't think the kids know the difference — as long as they have a present to rip open under the Christmas tree."
Going forward, volunteers will still pick out the gifts and pay the postage, but a computer will match the letter to the right address.
"The spirit of giving is still there, making somebody's Christmas a little brighter," said U.S. Postal Service spokesman George Flood. "But the times have changed. So the Operation Santa program had to change."