About two million letters addressed to Santa Claus that have been received by the main post office in New York City this Christmas season. For the past 70 years, postal workers around the country have read those letters hoping to make those wishes come true. It's part of an annual effort called, Operation Santa.
"We open them, we process them, and we make them available for the public to read," says Pete Fontana, who oversees the 22 postal "elves" who volunteer to organize the letters and arrange for the public or charities to "adopt" them. "Some of them are funny, some of them are sad. We've had a number of people walk out of here crying this year because the letters are so needy with people like a single mom with three kids just lost her job and they are being evicted."
Although Fontana has seen a rise in the number of such letters due to the troubled economy, he says many 'Dear Santa' letters do come from relatively well-off children. One boy sent a computer printed wish list containing 500 items.
Most of the children ask for things their parents can't afford, or the things they see other kids have. That includes electronics like game systems, digital cameras and laptop computers. Others just ask for the basics.
"Or sometimes they'll ask for a jacket for their mothers because their mother doesn't have winter clothes or they don't have sheets for the bed or they are all sleeping on the floor. They even ask for a bed. It's just amazing the things that they ask for."
Fontana recalls the letter from a severely disabled child who asked Santa for a high tech wheelchair that cost nearly $20,000. "The family didn't have health insurance. So the boy sent us a picture of it, and they put it in the one of the local papers. The next day we had somebody sponsoring the child to get his wheelchair. It felt great."
For postal elf, Antoinette, working with Operation Santa to help kids is a highlight of her year. She imagines the children's joy when postal workers come to the door with the "Santa gifts" they've requested. In the next room, another Operation Santa elf hands out photocopied Santa letters to ordinary New Yorkers like Paul.
"I am here to hopefully make one little kid's Christmas a little bit brighter," he says. "They gave me 10 letters to read and hopefully one of them [will contain a request for] …something I can afford."
A young woman named Erica is moved by all the requests for toys, but is more interested in helping out with practical gifts, such as socks, sweaters, jackets and other winter clothes needed to battle the harsh New York winter weather
"Toys are definitely beneficial as well but I think the necessities are definitely more important at this time," says Erica, who hopes to make kids happy. "They can't control circumstances, the parents lose their jobs or the parents can't afford to get them a gift, and if I have the means to help, I definitely will."
Of the millions of requests Operation Santa receives every year, only 15 percent are now answered with an actual gift, but the U.S. Postal Service has written a letter to Santa asking him to make that number even higher during next year's holiday season.