CINCINNATI -- The handwritten note is as brief as it is heartbreaking.
"Dear Santa," it says, "I wish I hade a better life."
Every year, the U.S. Post Office on Dalton Avenue in Cincinnati receives as many as 700 letters to Santa written by local children. Many include wish lists. Too many -- like this one -- include wishes that would be difficult even for Santa to grant.
But Tanya Lawson and Raymond Butts make sure every child whose letter includes a return address gets a postcard from Santa. And through the postal service's Operation Santa Program, they also make sure hundreds of needy families in town have presents for their kids to open.
Here's how it works: A parent or child writes a detailed letter to Operation Santa, explaining the family's need and requesting gifts that often include clothing or shoes. Lawson and Butts read every letter and ask mail carriers to help determine if the families truly are needy. The mail carriers also ensure that families haven't used multiple names for the same address.
After that vetting, Lawson and Butts remove identifying information from the letters, organize them by the number of children in each family and make them available for members of the public to read so they can "adopt" families for Christmas.
"The children know what kind of condition (their) family is in when you get it from the child," said Butts, a 33-year postal service veteran who tears up at the thought of some of the letters he has reviewed over the years. "Those are the hardest letters to read, those from the children that might say what they want and my little sister wants this."
Cincinnati's Main Post Office is one of only 14 locations across the country participating in Operation Santa Claus this year, according to the program's official website. Each branch manager decides whether the location will participate, and Cincinnati's gives his approval every year, Butts said.
But sadly, there were still 176 local families waiting to be adopted the day I met with Lawson and Butts.
That number was higher before Kim Ranz arrived. Ranz was looking online for ways to give back for Christmas and ran across information about the Operation Santa Program. She walked into the Main Post Office lobby to read through some letters and decided to adopt three families.
"Sometimes people just need a little extra help, you know?" said Ranz, who lives in White Oak and has a 19-month-old daughter. "And it's great to be able to provide that."
Comfy shoes and struggling grandparents
Ranz picked one of the families because the single mom who wrote the letter expressed such a positive attitude and seemed genuinely grateful, she said.
She picked another because the mom who wrote it had just gotten a job and takes the bus to work every day.
"She just wants some comfortable shoes for her job," she said.
Ranz looked through about 25 letters, and a single mom wrote nearly every letter.
But an increasing number of letters are coming from grandparents who are now raising their grandkids, Lawson said.
"It seems like every letter I open here lately, it's the grandparents that are asking for help," she said.
"It's not just that these grandparents are not able to have a Christmas for these children," Butts added. "But it's a great struggle. Somebody that's older, somebody with a fixed income and what they go through."
This can be depressing work.
Letter after letter details hardship, struggles and misfortune.
Sometimes, Lawson and Butts actually meet face-to-face with the children they're working to help.
Lawson recalled a day earlier this month when a mother walked up to the table with her young daughter, who was maybe 6 or 7. The mom wanted to register for Operation Santa, but the daughter was doing a lot of the talking. Butts told the little girl that he and Lawson were Santa's helpers.
The little girl looked him right in the eyes and asked: "Are you going to make sure Santa gets my letter?"
Butts could hardly hold back his tears as Lawson told the story. But this one had a happy ending.
As the little girl's mom was trying to register for Operation Santa, another lady was nearby reading letters, trying to decide which family to adopt. After the girl and her mom left, the lady asked Butts to read her the little girl's letter.
"It said, 'We didn't have a Christmas last year,'" Lawson explained. "Mommy said Santa was coming, and Santa didn't come."
That's when Butts started crying, and the lady listening asked if she could adopt the little girl's family on the spot.
Lawson and Butts quickly removed the identifying information from the letter, gave it a number for the program and handed it over.
"We were able to call them back that night and tell them they got adopted," Butts said.
That's the joyful part of the work. Butts and Lawson notify families when they have been adopted so they know to expect their mail carriers to deliver carefully wrapped and labeled packages the week before Christmas.
But they also call families to tell them when they haven't been adopted in case they want to try to find help elsewhere. That's the tough part.
The good news is that there's still time to make a difference. Lawson and Butts will have their table set up in the lobby of Cincinnati's Main Post Office from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday Dec. 15 and Friday Dec. 16 and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday Dec. 17. Gifts for adopted families must be returned on or before Monday Dec. 19. The hours for that day are 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
If you don’t have time to shop for a family, the program will accept donated toys and cash donations, too. Lawson and Butts will go shopping with the cash and do their best to spread the donations among the families who don't get adopted so they can have a better Christmas, too.
And while a better Christmas isn't the same as a better life, it's a start.
More information about the Operation Santa Program is available online.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.