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Operation Santa

By Janet Shamlian, NBC correspondent

Janet Shamlian, Correspondent

You don't think of the post office as a spot that stirs much emotion, which is why the box of tissues took me by surprise. I was in a Chicago branch Wednesday working on a feature story about the "Operation Santa" program. Maybe you've heard of it or served as one of Santa's elves yourself by answering one of the hard-luck letters. Postal worker Archie Culberson warned me. He'd been reading and sorting children's letters each Christmas for 25 years and said he'd never seen a year of such desperation. In a season of recession and unemployment, there were few requests for Nintendo and hundreds for necessities. How bad does it have to be when a little girl asks for a job for her daddy or a single mom wonders if Santa could bring Christmas dinner, because December food stamps won't stretch to the end of the month? After reading a dozen or so -- each more heart wrenching than the last -- I understood the tissues and was in need of a box of my own.

The spot was to run Christmas Eve, but developments in the last 48 hours have changed it into a more cautionary tale airing tonight on Nightly News. While I was meeting good Samaritans who wept openly as they tried to decide which needy child to help, postal workers in Maryland were stopping a known sex offender who wanted to answer one of the letters. The note was retrieved and the man is cooperating with authorities, but the incident was enough to shut down Operation Santa -- a week before Christmas and as thousands of letters sat in those bins, yet unanswered.

For its part, the US Postal Service acted quickly. Operation Santa resumes in New York and Chicago tomorrow with more restrictive rules protecting children's names and addresses. Archie Culberson hopes there will be enough 'substitute Santas' who will make the snowy trek to come read them, choose one and help keep the holiday magic alive. Don't forget some tissues.