Changes to USPS Letters to Santa program upend charities' plans

USPS aims to protect privacy of needy Letters to Santa writers, after an incident last year in which a registered sex offender obtained the address of a child. Charities scramble to adjust.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

A US Postal Service revision to its decades-old Letters to Santa program has some charities scurrying to figure out if and how they can continue giving to needy people who write in to ask for help.

Take organizers of a holiday benefit at Chicago's famed Second City theater. For each of the past 10 years, the event has raised more than $1 million for Chicago families living in housing projects or amid desperate circumstances. The recipe was simple and, until this year, always the same: Musicians and actors performed, money got raised, organizers bought goods and delivered a van load each to about a dozen families.

Families were selected using the postal service's Letters to Santa program. But this year, to protect letter writers' privacy, the USPS will no longer release their addresses, last names, or other private information to charities. Charitable givers, instead of delivering goods to recipients in person, will be required to mail them. (The USPS will assign a code to each letter writer, and it will be the only entity that knows a recipient's address, for delivery of the donation.)

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The changes follow an incident last December in which a registered sex offender in Maryland obtained the address of a young letter writer. According to Postal Service spokeswoman Sue Brennan, the program was shut down for three days.

The sex offender never made contact with the child, but the postal service decided to redraft Letters to Santa. "We just wanted to make sure there is no way anyone could violate the privacy and safety of these children," says Ms. Brennan. Thirty-nine cities volunteer to participate in the program.

Organizers of the Chicago event say the changes will alter how they and other charitable organizations give. The postal service erroneously perceives the program as serving just children, says Steve Albini, a recording producer and benefit organizer in Chicago. The letters his organization chooses each year are from adults only, writing on behalf of their families.

"[The post office] has dismissed letters written to Santa as something suburban children might do as a penmanship exercise at school," says Mr. Albini. "Those are people we're not concerned about. We're concerned about people whose lives and families are in such shambles [that] they have no other recourse."

The Second City benefit raises more than $100,000 a year and features a 24-hour comedy and music fest. The biggest draw, which Albini says generates $20,000 each year, is the chance to win a private concert by Jeff Tweedy, leader of the Chicago band Wilco. Earnings are spent on housewares, gift cards, beds, clothing, and other essential goods for as many as 15 families, depending on the need that year, says Albini. Mailing the goods would not only be physically impossible, but also, in some cases, such as for recipients who live in housing projects, would not ensure that the donations would reach the intended parties.

He says having the post office as an intermediary would scare off some recipients from reaching out for help.

"These are people who are not already involved in the system where some aid is getting to them ... and who may be uncomfortable getting involved in government programs or who don't want government scrutiny or had bad experiences with official relief organizations in the past," says Albini. "They're people who have literally no other recourse, and those are the people who are the most important to help."

Letters to Santa, which dates from 1912, is best known for its portrayal in the 1947 movie "Miracle on 34th Street." New York City and Chicago are the two biggest letter-generators; New York receives about 500,000 letters each holiday season. Postal districts volunteer to participate; over the years, says the USPS's Brennan, corporations and charitable organizations have stepped in to pick up the slack.

Concern over the changes also registered in the small town of North Pole, Alaska. US Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) last week told the Associated Press she is looking into the changes upon learning that a volunteer group that had been responding to letters addressed to Santa since the 1950s would no longer be able to do so under the new rules.

US Rep. Danny Davis (D) says he, too, is "in favor of the program" and that he contacted Postmaster General John Potter Wednesday but did not reach him. Congressman Davis says he plans to try again Friday.

"You can kind of see both sides," he says. "You can see the post office side in terms of liability ... on the other hand, if you are giving, you would like to have a sense of feeling that you are engaged. So I think there's merit on both sides. I just hope that the kids get a little something for Christmas."

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See also:

Holiday giving: how to choose a charity

The 50 largest US charities, ranked by total income (PDF)

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