Thousands of hand-written notes addressed to the North Pole are intercepted by one very special elf each year.
Make that "chief elf officer." Pete Fontana, the wish-granter at the helm of New York City's USPS Operation Santa, makes it possible for people to play Santa, providing presents for families who are less fortunate.
The post office program, celebrating its 99th year, accepts letters from families in need. Volunteers at about 75 post offices are then tasked with buying presents to fulfill the wishes. Fontana says he expects about 2 million letters this year.
Fontana, 60, says volunteers, like the Santa requests, come in all shapes and sizes.
"Folks that come in to pick up these letters aren't all well-to-do -- one was even on unemployment," he said. "The man looked for hours, just to find one letter that fit with his budget."
Letters for smaller gifts, such as holiday turkeys and new toy trucks, get picked up right away, he said. It's the intangible requests that are harder to answer -- and sometimes, harder to cope with.
After sifting through the notes, one volunteer began crying uncontrollably.
"She just said to me, 'Read this,' and handed me the letter," Fontana said. The letter read "Dear Santa, All I want is for you to give mommy a hug and kiss in heaven for me."
Operation Santa volunteers have even included prison inmates who saw the program on TV and wanted to get involved.
"I think there’s just good in everybody," Fontana said.
Fontana, who's been chief elf officer for 16 years, says Operation Santa turns back time and makes people think of their own childhood. He says sharing both laughter and tears with the volunteers keeps him going.
"That’s the best part, is meeting these people," Fontana said. "They energize me."
Fontana is hoping to spread that energy and has already begun planning and organizing for the program's 100th year anniversary. His goal is a lofty one -- to have volunteers at every post office that gets Santa letters.
"These letters makes you laugh, they make you cry," Fontana said. 'I want to have that available to everyone."
New Yorkers who want to volunteer for "Operation Santa" can visit the Farley Post Office in Manhattan. For a list of participating post offices nationwide, click here. For background on Operation Santa from the post office, click here.
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