Charlotte Whitten loves Christmas.
For the 7-year-old, the holiday represents giving and sharing, and celebrating the birth of Jesus. It means going to aunt Jane’s house, eating food and playing with her cousins – but most importantly, eating.
Last year, Charlotte wrote and mailed a letter to Santa on a plain, white sheet of paper. With a pencil, she drew a line down the middle of the page, splitting it into two sections: “Charlotte’s list” and “Liam’s list.”
She said Liam, her 5-year-old brother, always asked for “things that are not even on this planet yet,” like time machines. Charlotte’s requests for Barbies and dollhouses were more realistic — more “on this planet.” She even dedicated a line of her letter to ask Santa for a tablet computer for her father, Niles Whitten.
“I hope I still get it,” joked Whitten, a Gainesville attorney.
The freckled and frocked second-grader will write to Santa again, but this time she’ll do it through the Gainesville Post Office’s new program: Operation Santa Claus.
This is the first year the Gainesville Post Office is participating in the program. Operation Santa Claus, commonly shortened to Operation Santa, allows benefactors nationwide to adopt a “Dear Santa” letter and grant those gifts.
The program started in 1912 when Postmaster Gen. Frank Hitchcock authorized local postmasters to “allow postal employees and citizens to respond to letters from needy children,” according to the program’s blog.
Families lacking basic needs typically submit letters asking for clothing, money to pay bills, and often times, a simple meal. Some families, like the Whittens, simply write letters for the enjoyment of receiving a response.
Gainesville Postmaster Matthew Connelly implemented the city’s Operation Santa in mid-November with the help of his secretary, Theresa Hill. Connelly said Gainesville was the perfect place to implement the program.
“I know how charitable the postal service employees can be, and I’m learning how charitable Gainesville can be,” he said. “ When you put those two things together, it’s a no-brainer to bring a program like this to the Gainesville area.”
The only participating Florida locations are the Gainesville and Orlando post offices. A total of 18 post offices nationwide participate in Operation Santa.
“I think that says a lot about Gainesville,” Connelly said. Connelly and Hill began to receive letters from around the country on Dec. 2. In order to qualify for adoption by a benefactor, each letter had to be addressed to Operation Santa specifically.
“Once I read the first letter, my heart bled for them,” Hill, who doubles as head Elf to Connelly and his staff and Santa Claus to her readers, said.
She dedicates three to four hours a day sifting through and typing out personalized responses to each message. She answered 200 general letters to Santa this month.
A green binder filled with 145 Operation Santa requests sits on her wooden desk next to a light-up plastic snowman.
Hill said most of the adults who submit letters are hospitalized, unemployed or trying to fulfill basic duties, like paying the electricity bill.
She highlighted one man, paralyzed from the waist down, who asked Santa for a wheelchair this year.
The post office is currently working toward granting him his wish. Kids write on behalf of their parents and siblings, grandparents write on behalf of their grandchildren, and mothers write on behalf of themselves, each penning his or her Christmas wish list in a different way.
Small children often promise Santa cookies and carrots for his reindeer in exchange for toys and trinkets. One boy expresses his desire to be a good brother in large cursive scrawled in green crayon.
A 5-year-old with autism simply thanks St. Nicholas for the ability to dress himself, signing his gratitude with a smiley face. Connelly and Hill are accepting gifts from Operation Santa benefactors to match requests from those in need until Monday.
He said the majority of donors are U.S. Army veterans because they have endured hardships.
“They understand what it’s like to suffer to come home to a good Christmas meal and have family around you,” he said. “They probably understand that better than the rest of us.” So far, only one Gainesville local has adopted a letter.
The remaining benefactors ship their gifts through online and phone services. Last Christmas, Charlotte wished for a dollhouse and a jack-in-the-box. She didn’t get the dollhouse.
Whitten said writing letters to Santa impact his children by “creating childhood memories of Christmas.”
His daughter remembers to write hers every year. “’Hi, Santa. My name is Charlotte,’” she said, sucking on a purple lollipop. “I’ve been good this year.”