Cleveland postal worker reads and responds to Operation Santa letters for past 20 years

CLEVELAND - A program at the U.S. Postal Service in Cleveland hits the century mark in ensuring children have a happy holiday.

Dell Young wears something red to work every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas. After all, she is Mrs. Claus.

"Most kids are just really elated that they got a letter from Santa Claus," said Young, who works as a complaints and inquiry clerk at Cleveland's main post office. On Wednesday, Young sported a red scarf.

In addition to dealing with the perturbed postal customer, Young is happily the woman behind those Santa letters. For the past 20 years, she's received, read and responded to kids' letters from the post office's northern Ohio district addressed to Santa.

Young is part of the U.S. Postal Service's Operation Santa program, now celebrating its 100th year. Postal employees nationwide respond to Santa letters as if they were St. Nick. It also matches letters from needy children and families with anonymous donors willing to adopt those notes and fulfill holiday wishes.

"Some of the letters that come through tickle us, some of them make us a little somber. But it's a nice feeling knowing you're reaching out to kids you'll never interact with," said LaVanda Fondren, manager of consumer affairs and claims at Cleveland's main post office and one of Young's "elves."

Young's "Mrs. Claus" role has become so demanding in recent years that she now has a team of five colleagues at Cleveland's post office who assist with Operation Santa. Thousands pour in each year with some arriving as early as June.

Some notes are heartwarming. Others are heartbreaking.

"Children have written that my brother died or my sister died. They make you really sad," said Young, who added that a bad economy has been evident in Santa letters over the years.

"Kids are getting more thoughtful," she said.

Young and her team respond to each letter with a return address with a generic printed letter from "Santa." This year, they're prepping for a hectic holiday season.

"I think we have more [letters] than what we did last year at this time," said Fondren.

Despite the dismal financial state of the postal service, employees said "Operation Santa" is still going strong.

For the past 60 years, Operation Santa gives the public the opportunity to pick up to five children's letters and purchase a present on their wish lists to St. Nick. Postal employees said any personal information on the letters is redacted and donors remain anonymous and pay for postage. The post office wraps the gifts.

"I know the children love it," said Fondren.

For more information on the USPS Operation Santa program or to become a donor, please call 216-443-4431.

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