Remember the time you meticulously wrote that note to Santa? Written in your best penmanship, you tried to make sure to stress what a good kid you’d been all year, and sure, maybe you were a little overzealous with the copious please and thank yous, but you’d heard Santa was a real sucker for good manners.
Maybe you got a reply back — the post office has been sending replies to letters for Santa for many years — but you probably didn’t actually get a gift out of the deal.
This year, thanks to a group of Ave Maria School of Law students, several Southwest Florida kids will receive anonymous gifts from the letters they sent Santa.
The program, run by the United States Postal Service, is called Operation Santa Claus, and while it’s been in place in New York for many years, the program is new to Southwest Florida.
“I’ve been playing an elf for 16 years now,” says Ruthie Von Gunten-Persad, the Bonita Springs customer service supervisor who is usually tasked with answering the hundreds of letters that come in each December. “But this year it’s just the need, kids need more than just the letter.”
So, the Bonita Springs post office opened their doors to residents who wanted to come in, sift through the letters and buy an anonymous child a gift. And four law students from Ave Maria Law School heeded the call.
“I saw it on the news, and it just looked like a good thing to do,” said Christopher Frohlich, who organized the law students’ involvement.
So in between exams, finishing term papers and packing up in preparation for winter break, the four students carved out some time to make this Christmas one to remember for a few lucky local children.
In the back office of the Bonita Springs post office last week, Frohlich and fellow law students Erik Hoglund, Matthew Brown and Olivia Weil dumped a pile of letters onto a desk, each taking a few to look through.
Some of the letters had pretty lofty gift ideas.
“This girl wants four first class tickets to Hawaii, I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Weil as she scanned one letter.
Meahwhile, Frohlich read a letter that was slightly more plausible for his law student budget: “Dear Santa, I love you. I’ve been a very good boy. I would like a telescope.”
“OK, that’s reasonable, I’ll take this kid,” said Frohlich, a third-year student at the local Catholic law school.
It should be noted that the post office takes several precautions to protect the privacy of the letter writers. On each letter, the child’s name has been blacked out, and instead a number identifies the letter. Once the presents are purchased, the post office will do the addressing of the box — so that the child’s identity and address can be kept confidential.
After the students selected a handful of letters, they headed off to the closest mega-mart to do some toy shopping. With all four in their early 20s, it was obvious that none of them have spent too much time in the toy aisles, or at least not in the past several years — so their eyes widened when they saw the vast selection of toys and games in front of them.
“Look how cool this is!” exclaimed Matthew Brown as he picked up one toy after another, his inner child clearly on display.
As they perused the aisles, Star-Wars-themed Legos, books, stuffed animals, princess makeup kits, and all kinds of other toys made their way from shelf to cart. In just 20 short minutes, the cart was full. But they hadn’t yet found everything on their list. A singing hippo, requested by one very specific letter writer, eluded the group.
“We never found the singing hippo,” said Frohlich after they’d completed their shopping trip, but he added, “We got everything else on our list though.”
After their shopping was concluded, all the gifts were wrapped and brought back to the post office, where they would eventually be mailed to the original letter writers.
In the next few days, the presents these four students selected would be put in boxes with the return address of 123 Rudolph Lane, North Pole. From there they’d be sent out on trucks, and hand-delivered to homes throughout Southwest Florida — giving a few local kids just a little taste of Christmas magic.