CHICAGO (AP) -- Santa's letters got answered in Chicago this year, but it took an unusual appeal and a late surge of Christmas spirit from generous volunteers.
The number of people showing up at the U.S. Postal Service's Operation Santa program was off by several hundred as Christmas approached. The decades-old program relies on volunteers to show up, read letters from needy families across the Midwest and anonymously buy gifts with their own money to answer wishes.
But, in what postal officials attributed to the nation's economic slump and people's worries about their own holidays, only about 800 people had shown up by mid-December when the number normally is about 1,100. So postal officials took to the airwaves with a special appeal, and it made a difference: By this past weekend, 1,500 people had shown up, more than the total last year.
``The people did respond,'' said Mark Reynolds, a post office spokesman in Chicago. ``We didn't think it would happen.''
Operation Santa has been around in some capacity since 1912 at post offices around the country. The offices receive thousands of letters each Christmas season addressed to Santa and they're rerouted to the nearest of 75 Operation Santa centers, including ones in Boston and Washington, D.C.
The bulk end up in the New York City office, including some that are actually addressed to the North Pole, said Pete Fontana, head program organizer for the New York program.
The letters are put on display and once the ``Santas'' choose from them, they can head out and go shopping. Some pick one letter and others end up with several.
Reynolds said the Chicago program is the second largest outside of New York City, which receives more than 1 million letters each year from around the country and parts of the world. In Chicago, more than 15,000 letters have arrived this year from Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. It's down from 25,000 last year, although post office officials couldn't say whether fewer people had written letters or more had been diverted to New York or elsewhere.
In Chicago's main post office downtown, the letters arrive daily and by the dozen. Many requests are the same: A warm coat. Or maybe a pair of boots. How about a job?
``It's a hard Christmas overall,'' said first-time participant Molly Diemer, a 27-year-old Chicago dance teacher who was returning with a LeapFrog word game for a little girl whose letter caught her attention. ``As a family, if you have some extra cash, do you use that to pay some bills, or help another family? For some people, that's just a harder question. You want to be in the Christmas spirit, but there's also logistics of whether you can actually do it.''
For the dozen or so post office ``elves'' who read and organize the letters before they reach the public, it's a sentiment they understand well given the mood of some of the notes: A 12-year-old girl wanting clothes for her siblings because their father is unemployed. A mother of six wanting nothing in particular but a miracle after an electricity shut-off notice.
Some children just want a parent to find work after months or years of struggle.
Photocopied letters with addresses and last names marked out for security reasons are piled into mail bins by category along a long table for the picking: Letters from a boy or a girl. Letters seeking gifts for several children. Letters helping a whole family.
While some children seek the latest gadget, many more ask for basic necessities like warm clothing for the pending winter.
Jonathan Dewoskin, a network consultant from Chicago, dropped off two large boxes to be weighed for shipping. He and his girlfriend had never participated in the program before, but they chose two letters: Both from single mothers trying to provide for their young children.
The couple fulfilled some specific requests, including SpongeBob SquarePants bedding.
``I wasn't thrilled about doing it at first. It was my girlfriend's idea,'' Dewoskin, 39, said. ``But once we got started, it became a project for us. And there we were, at a Kmart and Toys R Us at 10 p.m.''
Robin Anderson, who heads the Chicago Operation Santa program, said there's an emotional pull with many letters.
``They'll move you to tears,'' she said. ``People will come in for one letter, and they'll leave with two or three.''
Unanswered letters are eventually shredded at a mail recovery center in Georgia. A Dec. 20 deadline was in place so that gifts reach families by Christmas, but letters are still available for answering through Christmas Day.
``No matter how small the gift, it can make a difference in someone's life,'' Anderson said. ``There's nothing too small they can give.''