STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's that time of year when millions of excited children around the world write their Christmas wish lists to Santa, or remember that they were so excited they already did it - back in September. In any event, in Brazil, Santa has teamed up with a special group of volunteers to make extra sure that some children, those most in need, get their wishes granted. It's a cross between Make-a-Wish and Secret Santa that helps over half a million lucky Brazilian children every year. NPR's Brazil Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Dear Father Christmas, the letter reads, my name is Larissa. I know that you are very busy and that you live a long way away in the North Pole, but I'd like to ask you for a gift because my mother doesn't have enough money to buy what I want. Another letter from a 10-year-old boy reads: My mother died when I was a young baby. I live with my brother and my father. But this Christmas he can't work because he's in the hospital. There are piles of other letters lying on makeshift tables in the main hall of the post office in downtown Sao Paulo, many decorated with stickers and drawings and handprints. A group of women sift through them, looking to choose one.
SONIA REGINA DE SA: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sonia Regina de Sa is a nurse's assistant. I've been doing this every year for nine years, she tells me. I really love it, she says.
DE SA: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The way it works, she explains, is that you come here, you read the letters, look for something that really affects you, and then you buy the gift the child asks for and you bring it back here to the post office, where they wrap it up and deliver it. It's become a holiday tradition all around Brazil. Most of the kids ask for dolls, balls, bicycles - the usual array of toys. But some letters, well, they ask for heartbreaking things, she says.
DE SA: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: This year, she tells me, I bought for a little boy who was asking for food. He was eight years old. He didn't want toys; he wanted food for his mother. It's something that just shocks you, and it makes me sad too, she says. Other letters have asked for help for crack-addicted parents or jobs for unemployed relatives.
ELIZABETH ARAGAO: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Elizabeth Aragao says she always chooses gifts for small children. I cry reading the letters, she admits. We try and help a little. If everyone helped a little, the world would be a better place, she says. And that is the idea behind the national program. It's sponsored by the post office and it's been going for almost a quarter of a century here in Brazil. Wilson Abadio de Oliveira is the director of the post office for metropolitan Sao Paulo.
WILSON ABADIO DE OLIVEIRA: (Through translator) How it began is a marvelous story. The campaign began through the initiative of the postal service employees. They were receiving letters from children addressed to Santa Claus in the North Pole, and then the workers started opening them and reading them. And they started buying some of the gifts the children asked for, and we thought what a great idea. And it then was adopted officially by the post office.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says one million children across Brazil now write letters every year, and about half of them are adopted by someone. The post office ensures that the letters come only from children under 10 years old with verified addresses. And the letters must be handwritten; he says it's a way of also making sure kids improve their writing skills. It's a big operation. So we're now in the bowels of the headquarters of the Sao Paolo City Post Office. And I guess if you were Father Christmas, this would be where the elves are working. So what are we seeing here?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: A worker explains that post office employees here are seconded to the Father Christmas Project here(ph). They (unintelligible) all the information there: name, age of the child, gift of choice. The letter then gets registered in the computer and a number is attached to it. At the end of the process the letters go down to the main floor to be adopted.
PAPA NOEL: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And sitting in the main lobby too is Santa, greeting children. His presence is part of the project.
NOEL: My name is Papa Noel.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: While most of the gifts bought through the program are delivered by regular letter carriers, sometimes Papa Noel in full regalia makes a special visit to someone's door.
NOEL: (Through translator) The whole point of this is to keep alive the spirit of Christmas inside our children, the story of Santa Claus. But this isn't only for children. It's a way for people to help each other. That's what this season is really about.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We go with one of the deliveries to a favela, or shantytown, not far from the post office. We stop in front of a shack. It's made of cardboard siding and tin, crowded among other makeshift dwellings.
(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maria Marisa Laureano answers the door. Her daughter, eight-year-old Marileni, asked for three beds for her and her two sisters. When we go into the one-room home, we see only one large bed where Maria says she and her children all sleep. A pot of food is cooking in the corner, clothes are strewn on the floor. It's dark and crowded and the walls are so thin, you can hear the neighbors talking.
MARIA MARISA LAUREANO: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The new beds barely fit in the house. Maria says they are hoping to move. It's been three months since I moved here, she says, but there are a lot of termites. Some nights we can't sleep. They fly and walk on the bed, on us, they bite. Life has been very hard. She begins to cry.
LAUREANO: (Foreign language spoken)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We wrote a letter but we didn't know if we would get anything. I don't even have words. I thank Father Christmas a lot, she says. God bless each day more, Papa Noel. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Sao Paolo.