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‘Elves’ lift needy kids’ spirits

Updated: January 3, 2013 6:30AM

Several weeks ago, the normally quiet library at the Chicago Sun-Times sprang to life with a small team of workers who seemed to be on some sort of special mission.

Unlike the somber, suspicious news people surrounding them, they smiled. They were even observed laughing. What strange creatures were these working so close to a newsroom?

Imagine our shock — and delight — in learning that these were some of Santa’s elves.

For all these many years the Sun-Times has conducted its Letters to Santa program, Santa’s team of helpers worked hidden away from those of us who chronicle their efforts to match needy Chicago children with readers who are kind enough to fill those holiday gift wishes.

This year, however, due to space constraints, the elves brought their stacks of 10,329 cheer-filled, crayon-illustrated letters smack dab into our den of bah-humbuggery.

The results were surprisingly infectious. Smiles began to appear on normally grim faces. If you didn’t know better, you might think the place had caught, dare I say it, the Christmas spirit.

As luck would have it, the elves still have nearly 2,000 of those letters yet to be claimed, each of them offering a great opportunity for you to catch the spirit as well.

The Sun-Times’ charity program is a little more labor intensive than some but our experience is that also makes it more rewarding.

What we ask you to do is to make a request for one or more of the children’s letters (see the accompanying box for details), which those aforementioned elves will send to you.

Your responsibility is then to purchase a gift requested by the child, staying within a $25-30 price range, and gift wrap it.

Finally, you also have to make sure the gift is delivered to the child’s school or participating agency by the deadline specified on the instructions we’ll send. (Deadlines can vary, depending on when the schools plans to hand out the gifts.)

Obviously, that’s not as easy as just donating money but the many returning Santa’s Helpers tell us they enjoy the personal touch (which should not discourage you from just making a cash donation if that’s your preference.)

“This program really relies on our supporters,” explained Amy Cornell, who supervises our team of elves. “So many of these folks come back year after year.”

One of those supporters is Pat Sklar of West Rogers Park, who takes on the responsibility of buying gifts for all the pre-schoolers that her sister-in-law teaches at Delano Elementary School in East Garfield Park.

“It’s definitely a school where there is a lot of need,” said Sklar, who told me she’s about 90 percent finished with her wrapping.

A lot of companies get involved, too.

Allison Morrow is the Letters for Santa coordinator at Ronin Capital, a trading firm whose employees have gone from filling 50 letters a year to 150.

“It’s only been wonderful experiences on our end,” said Morrow, who often hears from co-workers who tell her that they only have boys in their family and are happy for the chance to shop for girls — or vice versa.

“It’s a labor of love. I couldn’t imagine not doing it,” Morrow said.

At one of the schools, a Santa who is said to look strangely like me has handed out the gifts the last couple of years, and I have it on good authority that he has always found the kids extremely appreciative. At some of these schools, this is clearly one of the highlights of the year.

This year pre-schoolers through third-graders at 59 schools and non-profit agencies sent us letters, and we don’t want to disappoint any of them.

Back in the library, the elves tell me they hear from people all the time who received gifts through the program as a kid and now want to take their turn giving back.

That’s another thing you should know about those Letters to Santa. They can put a smile on your face — and at the same time bring a tear to your eye.

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