The United States Postal Service abruptly shut down public participation in all the Operation Santa programs " in New York and other major cities across the country " at 1 p.m. Wednesday, without offering post offices or letter-seeking citizens any understanding of why.
A Postal Service official in Washington, after an initial, limited acknowledgment of a “privacy breach,” said that at one of the programs, not New York’s, a man whom a letter carrier recognized as a registered sex offender had “adopted” a letter. When postal officials confronted the man, the official said, he said he was sincerely trying to do a good deed, but postal inspectors nonetheless retrieved the letter and notified the family of the child.
The Postal Service, indicating that the closing down of all of Operation Santa might be temporary, said that it felt it was wise to take the precaution.
Lisa Lorusso and her four granddaughters gathered around the Christmas gifts they had packed inside a box at a long table in the sprawling post office at Eighth Avenue and 33rd Street in Manhattan.
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Postal Service Tells Gift-Givers Not to Help Santa (December 19, 2008) “Snowsuit?” Ms. Lorusso called out. Check, responded the 11-year-old twins.
“Pink snow boots?” she asked. Check, answered the 8-year-old and the 9-year-old.
“Underwear, toys and pink pajamas?” Ms. Lorusso asked as she dug through the box. Check, check and check.
They closed the box and taped it shut. Then, Ms. Lorusso whipped out a pen and wrote “From Santa and the elves with love.”
As the girls traded smiles, a postal worker pushed a metal cart toward the family and called out: “Don’t forget the recipient control number and ZIP Code.”
Ms. Lorusso and the four girls were learning that fulfilling the wishes of needy children who penned letters to the fun fat fellow through the United States Postal Service’s Operation Santa Claus was not as simple as it used to be.
The Postal Service abruptly shut down the national program last week because of a privacy breach and reopened it Saturday in New York with a few policy changes that made the process a bit more complicated and for some a little less warm and fuzzy.
For nearly 100 years, people would pick out letters at a post office and send gifts directly to children using the address listed on the letters.
But the program was shut down after postal workers recognized a registered sex offender as one of the people taking a letter at a facility outside of New York. The man told postal officials that he meant no harm, but officials notified the family of the child, and the program was stopped.
Operation Santa resumed with a few tweaks, including the redaction of last names and addresses with heavy black ink. And instead of sending gifts directly to children, secret Santas must take wrapped presents to the post office and provide the recipient control number that corresponds with their letter. The post office will then deliver the gifts.
At the James A. Farley Post Office on Eighth Avenue, Ms. Lorusso scanned the copy of the redacted letter to Santa she was given when she had walked into the post office a couple hours earlier. She searched the child’s letter line by squiggly line, through and around blacked-out sections that looked more like a classified F.B.I. document than the wish list of a 7-year-old girl and her 2-year-old sister. But finally she found what she needed.
“It bothers me a little bit,” Ms. Lorusso, 61, said of the new restrictions. “We would have liked to stay in touch with the girls or write them a letter.” Though the process was a little more cumbersome than they had expected, nothing could shake the feeling of their good deed, the family said. Ms. Lorusso said they had driven in from Saddle Brook, N.J., and had been the first in line. The girls hope to make Operation Santa a family tradition.
George B. Flood, a spokesman for the Postal Service, said about 3,000 letters a day were adopted by people wishing to provide, with some people taking as many as 10 letters.
The Farley Post Office has about 15 workers redacting and copying letters. “Obviously the operation has become a little more labor intensive,” Mr. Flood said. “But it’s a labor of love.”
Andrea Stella, 22, sat at a small table where Operation Santa Claus was in high gear. With tears in her eyes she read through a little boy’s Christmas wish list. She sniffled a bit and smiled as she flipped through the pages.
“I’ve been angry the past few Christmases because my parents have not been able afford to get me anything,” she read aloud. Another boy just asked Santa for twin sheets. Others wanted clothes, a home for their family or something warm to wear. Others asked for happiness in families whose parents had been laid off or evicted.
Letter by letter, page by page, Ms. Stella read more of the same.
“Am I upset with the changes?” she asked. “Are you kidding? It’s still very real.” Ms. Stella said that she was surprised that the policy changes had not been made earlier.
“In today’s day you can’t be too safe,” said Mike Catsam, 24, Ms. Stella’s boyfriend.
Across the room, Dawn Schober and Deborah Waring, who both live in Amityville, on Long Island, sat close together reading through letters. They had participated in the program together for about 12 years.
But the newly instituted anonymity of the program has dampened their spirits a bit.
“Yes, you got to protect the kids, but unfortunately it doesn’t take a whole lot for somebody that wants to do something wrong,” Ms. Waring said. “They don’t have to do this to go find kids.”
“This is our fun. This was always our Christmas,” Ms. Schober said. “But this is a little frustrating.”
Nonetheless, Ms. Schober and Ms. Waring said they would do what they do every Christmas: send their gift boxes stuffed with Christmas candy and goodies.