Laura Dudnick/The S.f. ExaminerMelissa Moreno

Children send holiday wish lists to Santa at Pier 39 event

When Lacresha Whitfield brought her daughters to Pier 39 last year to write letters to Santa as part of a more-than-century-old U.S. Postal Service holiday campaign, she never expected that their wishes would come true.

Recalling how the San Francisco family received anonymous gifts in the mail that were exactly what the girls had asked for — a Monster High doll for Mackenzie, now 8, and puzzles and blocks for Madison, now 2 — Whitfield said they decided they had to come back this year for another dose of Christmas magic.

“We weren't expecting it, so it was a really, really nice gift,” Whitfield said Sunday at the Letters to Santa event at Pier 39. “Just to know that there's people out there who are actually giving to kids for that time of year, it's a really nice, pleasant surprise.”

The anonymous gift givers are actually Santa's helpers, or community volunteers who adopt a letter from a child addressed to Santa Claus and provide the child with the gift they desired. Sometimes Santa's helpers simply write back a note saying “Nice job in school,” other times they send actual presents.

“It gives us an opportunity to give back to the community,” said James Wigdel, a spokesman for the USPS that has operated the Letters to Santa program since 1912. “It really makes a child's holiday season very, very happy.”

Members of the public can pick up letters between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on the first three Tuesdays in December at the post office at 1300 Evans Ave. The USPS redacts the child's address and last name so the gift giving is anonymous, and the helpers can then return their gift to the post office with postage.

Santa's elves, or post office employees, will then mail the gifts to children with the hope that Santa pays a visit to every home.

“Some letters are really heartbreaking,” said Wigdel, adding that children sometimes reveal a parent's recent job loss and ask for clothes for their siblings. “Those kinds of letters get put to the top of the pile,” he said.

Each year, the USPS receives about 500 letters a year in San Francisco, many of which are written at the program's two-day kickoff event this past Saturday and Sunday, where children placed handwritten letters to Santa in a small red mailbox at Pier 39.

Osmar Martinez, 8, and his younger brother Jared, 4, came to the pier to write letters to Santa on Sunday — the fourth time the Oakland family has traveled to The City for such an occasion, said their father, Ivan.

“It's fun for the kids, it's a tradition,” Ivan Martinez said. “They like to write letters to Santa and see the lighted tree.”

Santa has answered the children's wishes before, the boys said. Osmar asked for action figures and Legos this year, and said two years ago, he asked for a tablet computer and actually received one.

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