A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Friday, May 27, 2011

Goodbye, Ms. Claus

One day 25 years ago, Elma Ramirez, consumer affairs manager for the U.S. Postal Service's Bay Valley District (which covers both Alameda and Contra Costa counties), walked into the dead letter office in downtown Oakland and discovered thousands of children's letters to Santa Claus that had ended up there because the post office didn't know what else to do with them.
She started reading them, and she was shaken by what she read. Their desperation, together with their touching faith that somebody, somewhere, might be listening, broke her heart.
So she and a few of her co-workers started answering them. They dug into their own pockets to buy little gifts for the children, but even more important was letting the kids know that somebody out there cares.
It quickly became obvious that they would need help to handle the huge volume, so the next year Elma decided to enlist the public.
That's where I came in. For 24 years, I have printed some of the letters in the newspaper and asked you readers to help. And for 24 years, you have come through with flying colors.
Each of us has our favorite letters. I remember the boy who wrote, "Dear Santa, I'm Jewish and I know I shouldn't believe in you, but I can't help it," and the girl who asked, "Santa, do you know Jesus? Are you friends? Please say hi to him for me."
But the ones that will stay with me always are the ones from desperately poor children who say, "Santa, you don't have to bring me anything, but could you please bring shoes for my little brother?"
These kids are the true spirit of Christmas. Their generosity and faith put us to shame.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and Elma is retiring after 39 years on the job. Tuesday, May 31, will be her last day.
She has asked me to thank you, the readers, for supporting this program.
"They have been incredibly generous and understanding," she says. "Even in the face of changing regulations, they have always come through for the children."
And she has nothing but praise for her dedicated staff - David Thompson, Janet Ezell, Brenda Presley, Margarita Cristobal, Nina Tan, Toni Harmon and Carmen Bouchet - who have been with her every step of the way.
So will the Santa letters program continue after her retirement? Elma sure hopes so.
"I hope it doesn't stop with me. This has become part of the postal service's tradition, and I hope it lasts forever, even in hard times. ESPECIALLY in hard times."
If you'd like this wonderful program to continue, please drop a note to Kim Fernandez, district manager of the Bay Valley District, at 1675 7th St., Oakland 94615.
He's been very supportive in the past, as has Elma's immediate boss, marketing manager James Tatum. But I have a hunch they could use some positive feedback from the public as evidence to convince their higher-ups back in Washington, DC.
And if you'd like to thank Elma herself, you can drop her a line c/o the consumer affairs division at 201 13th Street, Room 228, Oakland 94612.
She's a great lady, and I'm going to miss her terribly. And the best way to honor her is to keep her legacy going.