12/08/2011 03:04 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2011

Santa's Elf At The Postal Service Confronts His Biggest Challenge Yet, The Economy

NEW YORK -- Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blitzen and Recession. Santa's got a new reindeer to wrangle, and it's sending hundreds of thousands of desperate kids to the post office for presents.

Pete Fontana, a 60-year-old wise-cracking son of Bensonhurst, has been working the elf business for the post office since 1995. But he's never seen a Christmas like this, the 99th year of "Operation Santa," which was immortalized in movies like "Miracle on 34th Street."

"Within the last year or so, kids are not asking just for themselves anymore," said Fontana, a customer relations coordinator who was recently promoted to become the USPS "chief elf officer."

"Sometimes not for themselves at all, but for their mom, or their siblings," Fontana said. "That really touches you."

Operation Santa places volunteers at 75 post offices in charge of buying presents for the underprivileged who write in. Last year the New York branch of the post office got some 1.7 million letters from kids and parents in need. Even as the economy supposedly gets better, Fontana said he thinks he'll see two million letters this year.

The holidays, he said, are "the toughest time for people in need. That's when you feel it more than any other time of the year, is when you can't do something for your kids, or your family, under the tree or put a dinner on the table."

With so much demand, Fontana guesses that only about 50,000 of New York's neediest will see their wishes come true. But it's not hard picking out those who could use a helping hand the most, he said: "you can tell."

Growing up in the 1950s and '60s, Fontana remembered, "We were fortunate. We weren't rich, but I used to have four or five gifts to open up every year, and I was one of five kids."

These days, one of every four children under the age of six is living in poverty. That's 5.9 million kids in 2010, up from 5.7 million in 2009. The health and educational effects of those early lean years can linger throughout one's life.

So Fontana and his merry band of 20 temps and one other full-time staffer work their mightiest to make at least one day happy. From mid-November until the first week of January, he is sometimes in the office 14 hours a day to make sure that those kids get at least one little smile.

After the letters come in, he and his team sort them, redact any identifying information, and give them to ordinary citizens -- "atheists, Jewish folks, Muslims, Buddhists, you name it" -- to pick out presents on their own dime. Then those volunteers bring the packages back, along with a number that lets the post office know which kid to send them to, and pay for the postage.

The USPS, which will soon be slashing 100,000 jobs and slowing first-class delivery times, has taken plenty of hits lately. But so far, Fontana said, Operation Santa has gone unaffected.

"The postal service understands how important this program is. It's a shining star right now when we're going through some very difficult times. We're in survival mode," Fontana said.

Fontana reads plenty of the letters himself. Contrary to the stereotype of the lazy postman, he also winds up delivering some of them by hand.

He's seeing the most growth in letters to Santa among single moms and senior citizens. Grandparents, he said, are often "on a fixed income. They're really feeling the pinch of the economy. One letter I just read, they wanted a turkey. That's all they wanted -- a turkey for Christmas dinner."

Another letter Fontana showed HuffPost was written in Spanish from a mother of three from the Bronx. She was writing in to ask for Christmas help this year, she said, because she was unemployed.

All of it can take an emotional toll on Fontana, who has one adult-age daughter of his own. But the worry wears off when he goes into the office and interacts with volunteers, some of them children themselves.

"I love it. I love what we do here," Fontana said. "I can't see anyone else running this."

But he can see taking a break. "In January I'm going down to Aruba for a week, just to catch up with myself, you know? Lay in the sun with the umbrella drink. I just reflect on the roller coaster ride this has been."

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.




Operation Santa Claus