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Writing is believing

Volunteers answer Santa letters with words and donations to children in need

Posted: December 21, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 21, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Pela McHenry from Granada Hills reads a child's Christmas letter written to Santa at the Santa Clarita Processing and Distribution Center in Castaic. Operation Santa allows people to answer letters and donate gifts to children who write letters to Santa.

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Michelle Wilde spread her hands over a pool of letters, touching each one as she moved across the table.

Some were written in a child’s imperfect cursive, labored over with painstaking care. Others were scrawled in big, boxy letters that carried across the page in crooked lines.

Like about 15 others, Wilde visited the Santa Clarita Processing and Distribution Center in Castaic on Tuesday to “adopt” a Santa letter written by a child or adult in need.

As an Operation Santa volunteer, Wilde will choose a letter, donate the requested gifts and respond to the writer as Santa, if appropriate.

Pausing for a minute, Wilde picked up a letter with clean, straight penmanship. It was longer than the rest.

Her eyes moved rapidly from left to right, tearing through the lines on the page.

“They are really sad,” she said, her voice breaking.

Wilde’s chosen writer wished for donations to her sister’s family, since her sister was a victim of domestic abuse.

In tears, Wilde read aloud the letter: “Any gifts would be fine — just so they can have something to open on Christmas morning.”

Castaic is one of only three locations in Southern California to participate this year; U.S. Post Offices are not required to host Operation Santa, said Jennifer Clark, “head elf” at the Castaic office.

“I don’t want kids to write to Santa and not get a letter back. We can’t just let them go unanswered,” Clark said.

She remembers how one girl wrote back, thanking Santa for his response and letting him know she shared his letter to her whole fourth-grade class.

Pela McHenry, 27, had driven down from Mission Hills just to participate, expressing a similar sentiment as Clark.

“Christmas morning is a big deal to kids, and some kids don’t get that,” she said. “But every kid deserves a Christmas. I can’t imagine not being able to provide that for my own daughter.”

While thumbing through the various stories and wishes, McHenry kept one letter in her right hand.

“One girl wants a laptop, so she can do homework,” she said. “I wish I could afford to buy her a laptop.”

Both McHenry and Clark said they wished they could do more.

The Castaic office received about 5,000 Santa letters this year. About 2,000 of those will receive response letters, and about 150 make it into the program for adoption, Clark said.

All 5,000 letters come from families in Castaic’s district, which runs from North Hollywood to Visalia and from the Sierra Nevadas to the central coast.

To ensure the safety of the children, the program has evolved over the years, she said.

Clark collects the Santa letters, sorts them and determines if they are written by families in need of support.
She then redacts all the personal information, including last names, phone numbers, addresses and school information, before labeling each with a code.

As one volunteer walked in backwards, carrying wrapped gifts stacked up to her face, a Valencia couple readied to leave with three letters in hand.

Kevin Baxter, 54, said he and his wife participated because they didn’t have as many needs as these families. Growing up in a poor neighborhood, Baxter said, he knows what Christmas can look like for those who don’t have a lot.

After reading several letters, the couple decided on one for its tongue-and-cheek humor.

The young girl wrote: “We don’t have cookies or milk, but you could lose a little weight.”

“We don’t care what she wants, she’s getting it,” Baxter said, laughing heartily.

The couple chose two other letters: one written by a mother and another by a child who asked only on behalf of his or her siblings.

“This one broke my heart,” said Baxter’s wife, Jerry Berrios, 43. “When kids are asking from the heart ­— and they really believe — you have no choice but to help in whatever way you can.”



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