Santa is Alive and Well . . . at GE
At first glance it’s just another letter to The Big Guy. “Dear Santa,” it begins.“My name is Athena. I am six years old. I would like a bike, Barbie doll, and a Tinkerbell doll, please.”
But then there’s an unexpected twist.
“I maybe (sic) young, but I know there are lots of kids who will not get any presents. Please give them something from me. Thanks. Athena.”
It’s a level of maturity and caring one wouldn’t usually see from a young child. But the unexpected is common for these GE Volunteers who donate their lunch breaks each holiday season to answer letters to Santa. They reply to the hundreds of letters that find their way annually to the Schenectady GE campus with its easy to remember 12345 ZIP Code.
Longtime participant and this year’s chair, Darlene Muscanell, says the letters come from all over, including across the United States, China, Hong Kong, and other foreign countries. Many find their way to Schenectady bearing addresses on Believe Way, Top Of The World, Planet Earth, or other unexpected places. Others don’t even have that, said Muscanell.
“We will get a letter that has no postage and no ZIP code and it still comes to us.”
Several times per week before the holiday the group gathers in a conference room with mailing supplies and a lunch provided by GM of Sales Stan Smith, who has sponsored the group for the past 10 years.
The event has been going on since 1994, when the volunteers were still known as the Elfuns, and the number of letters answered has gone up over the years. The last five years volunteers have answered about 1,000 per year, trying to answer all that bear return addresses.
The volunteers open each envelope and read the letter before replying. Mostly they use of one of several different pre-printed reply letters, but each child gets a personal note from the volunteer Santa based on what they have read from that child.
Muscanell said the goal of the reply letters is always to urge the child to give rather than receive. Volunteers are also careful never to promise a child they will get a specific gift.
“Please don’t forget the true meaning of Christmas . . . helping others” reads one reply letter. “By doing a good deed for someone else, It will make you feel good, too. Try it today!”
Some letters asking for gifts from Santa also include gifts for Santa – a bejeweled pin or a peppermint with a lovingly made “for Santa” tag. Muscanell said many also include thanks for their gifts from the previous year. She said she also gets a kick out of the questions
“The younger kids are the funny ones,” said Muscanell. “It’s hysterical the questions they ask.”
Are you real? Are you majik? Are you chuby? How much do you whay? Will you come to Phinix (Phoenix)?
Most envelopes contain the expected lists of “I want.” But volunteers never know exactly what they will find in the incoming letters. Some kids just send written lists with all the spelling mistakes you would expect from young writers. Others have laboriously prepared works of art in full color with portraits of Santa, the elves, or Mrs. Claus.
Sometimes the kids have obviously gotten writing help from parents who include notes of their own.
“Dear Santa,” writes Chloe.“I would like a Barbie Playground, a Lotso Huggin Bear and the Barbie Carriage.” Then “Mommy” Susan adds a postscript . . . “I would love for you to take 40 lbs. away with you this year.”
Other children let on that they may have slipped just a little in the past year on the “Naughty or Nice” list. Dylan writes that for the coming year “I will try harder to not bite my sister.”
Competition for the limited volunteer spots is keen because it’s such a great experience, according to Carla Snyder, a Customer Resolution Manager for Wind.
“I love little kids and reading the letters. I believe giving of ourselves to others is part of what Christmas is about,” said Snyder, who is in her second year of volunteering.
“At GE we have so much. It’s great to give back to the kids – to let them have a childhood and believe in something good once in a while.”
Snyder has also found out that along with the humor there are also letters that tug at the heart- strings. With uncertain economic times, some of the most poignant come from adults. While there is no official policy for volunteers on answering such letters, Snyder found one she couldn’t resist.
“It was one of the letters in the pile and I just opened and read it,” she said. “It was a woman from NYC and she had a little girl and boy and she was asking for specific items – a jacket for her daughter and a pair of sneakers for her son.” “You just get that feeling – that’s something I should do something about.” So Snyder and her husband bought the items, mailed them, and hoped for the best.
“About a month after Christmas we received a beautiful letter about how it made her kids Christmas,” she said.
Mike Norris also believes in what Christmas stands for and wants to spread the good cheer. Norris, a Project Manager for GPO, has been volunteering to answer letters for more than ten years.
“For me it’s a great opportunity to start getting into the Christmas season,”he said,“And it’s also a good time to understand the real meaning of Christmas—kids and sharing with other people.”