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GLOBE SANTA

The letter room

Globe Santa gets tens of thousands of letters. Meet the team that reads them.

For 67 years Globe Santa, a program of the Boston Globe Foundation, has provided gifts to children in need at holiday time. Please consider giving by phone, mail, or online at globesanta.org.

It’s a rainy Wednesday morning and the phones at Globe Santa are ringing off the hook. This is unusual in the letter room, where the primary occupation is reading and processing letters — thousands and thousands of letters.

An early morning reminder of the approaching deadline for the 2022 season, sent in a text from the Department of Transitional Assistance, sparked the flurry of calls. They’re from families needing help to enroll, needing information and especially needing reassurance that their children won’t be left out this holiday season.

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So the letter readers have pivoted and become switchboard operators of sorts. The air fills with the sound of murmuring voices. How can I help you? Yes, there’s still time. No, applications can’t be taken over the phone or online. Did you receive it in the mail? The green form? You lost it? That’s OK! You can print a new one from the DTA Connect app. Yes, put it in the mail, with a stamp.

The letter room is two small offices, in an industrial park in Randolph. It’s the nerve center of Globe Santa, the Boston Globe Foundation’s program that delivers holiday presents to children in need across Greater Boston.

A refugee from Afghanistan calls to say the family has just had a baby, can she be added to the application? A family will be moving in December, what to do? A woman — a veteran and a mother — leaves a voice mail: She cannot get through to the DTA, despite repeated attempts. “There is no way to speak to a live person,” she says.

The letters arrive around noon, in an enormous US Postal Service tray. They come at a rate of 500 to 700 a day, says Tammy McFarland, Globe Santa’s manager for family requests. Last year’s total was 17,407 letters, on behalf of 30,000 children. They’re on track this year for the same or more.

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“There are days, especially toward the deadline, when we are very busy elves,” says Kathleen Collins, one of the team of readers who have been helping McFarland, some for years.

Standard-sized envelopes are fed into an old Pitney Bowes letter-opening machine. Letters that arrive in small envelopes are opened by hand, as are odd-sized envelopes, previously used envelopes. Sometimes there are no envelopes at all. Some letters come unstamped, and silent, heartfelt thanks are sent to the postal workers who put them through anyway.

“They see they’re addressed to Globe Santa, and they know what’s in those envelopes,” McFarland says. What’s inside are the green forms, obtained from the DTA or other social service organizations, completed by families with children, from birth to 12, in need of Globe Santa’s help.

The forms are numbered, inspected; information is entered into the Globe Santa database. If an address has been crossed out, or there’s a name change, or a child added, the readers reach out. They explain that all changes must be made via the DTA, and the forms resubmitted.

A silence falls over the room as the letters are read. Many are short and to the point, one or two sentences. Others are heartfelt essays. Parents putting their pride aside, for the sake of children. One woman, an immigrant from Haiti, encloses two small flags, every year, one from her old home and one from her new.

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“You put yourself in their shoes. You think of the children you’re helping,” McFarland says. “Some letters, when you read them, you cry. You can’t help it.”

Some letters, because even in the most difficult circumstances children can be just naturally funny, make you laugh. When they’re accompanied by drawings, intended as presents for Globe Santa, the drawings are pinned to the walls — a Christmas tree, a child’s self-portrait-with-toothy-grin, and monsters.

Globe Santa’s readers tend to return, year after year. McFarland herself is in her 12th year with the program, which “has allowed me to serve more than 400,000 children,” she says. “The greatest gift.”

“This is my Christmas gift to myself, being here, doing this,” says Andrea Hancock, in her fifth year as a Globe Santa reader.

Once the forms are processed, families receive confirmation that they’re enrolled in Globe Santa, and that the next e-mail they’ll get will contain a tracking number.

E-mail is nearly universal now, as are mobile phones. Still, there are glitches, phones lost or damaged, mailboxes full, accounts cancelled.

McFarland and reader Linda Ryan stay till the end. Mindful of calls in the past from tearful parents whose Globe Santa boxes had not arrived, they have a goal now of seeing every box delivered by mid-December, allowing for glitches, mix-ups, for lost, and occasionally stolen, boxes.

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And when that happens, the phones will ring, and they’ll answer them. “We’re here,” McFarland says. “We tell them, we’re here. We’ll help you get through this.”


Ellen Bartlett can be reached at ellen.bartlett@globe.com.