How to Volunteer

How to Volunteer

On this page you will learn how to be an Elf for the wonderful USPS Operation Santa ® program.

Here’s a quick summary of 3 ways you can Be An Elf, with more detail following. 


1. Go to the USPS website, and adopt a letter to Santa — but first, read this page and the tips we offer.

If you don’t see enough “needy” letters at the USPS ® site, it means Christmas volunteers have already adopted the letters asking for basic necessities. When a letter is adopted, it is automatically taken down from the site, leaving the letters other volunteers did not adopt. If you don’t find a letter that moves you, come back the next day, because postal elves add new letters every day as they pour in during December.

Start by adopting one letter! Shopping, wrapping gifts, boxing them, and mailing them is more work than you might realize — unless you are mailing $100 Target gift cards to the Moms, like Be An Elf does. There is also the cost to consider; often one letter goes above $100. That’s why teaming up with friends, even to adopt one letter or family, is smart. More on that later.

Consider, too, that there is excitement at the start. You fully intend to do something, but the reality of really doing it is a different matter. If you don’t fulfill every letter you adopt, those kids will go without. This is not a competition to see who can adopt letters; this is a loving collaboration between us all.

So adopt only one letter, for now, and leave needy letters for others to adopt. Trust us, people will snap them up quickly when the site opens on November 29.

The good news is, you can log back into your account at and un-adopt any letters you’ve adopted. That makes them available for adoption by other volunteers, but if you do it too late in the season, the kids won’t get the gifts in time for Christmas morning.

This year USPS Operation Santa ® will open for online letter adoption starting November 29th, 2021. You must first register for an account and have your ID verified; this may be done starting November 15th.

As soon as you adopt a letter to Santa at the USPS site, you may download it and print it together with a barcoded mailing label. The child’s address and family name are redacted by USPS Staff, and only their first name remains.

After reviewing letters for the website, postal elves put every letter back into the mail and send it on its way to the jolly man in red at the North Pole. Children may be happy to learn that, in addition to the gifts that all kids get from Santa, he also has kind volunteers who send a few extra gifts to children whose parents are struggling financially. Some letters do not get selected for the USPS site, but those kids will at least get Santa’s gifts.

How to mail your packages  When you’ve completed your shopping and gift wrapping, visit our Locations page  to find the branch closest to you that offers “label scanning.” Only those branches can scan the bar-coded mailing label that you printed out together with the letter you adopted, and the clerk will convert it to an address label. There are 19,000 post offices across the US that offer label scanning.

2. If you don’t have time to adopt a letter, buy gifts and mail them, please donate online to Be An Elf or give by check. Your gift to our non-profit is fully tax-deductible, and we use online donations to adopt Santa letters ourselves.

We’re all-volunteer here. Be An Elf is a tax-exempt 501(c)3 charity that supports USPS Operation Santa ® every year. Be An Elf is not affiliated with USPS Operation Santa ®, but we support the wonderful program by creating public awareness of it — both among needy families and volunteers who wish to help others at Christmas. We’ve recruited thousands of volunteer Elves since our founding in 2004, and we use donations to send Target gift cards to needy families whose letters we adopt each year.

By sending Target gift cards to the moms, we’ve been able to adopt many more letters in recent years. We have faith that the mothers know best what their children need, and their shopping will be limited to Target, which has stores everywhere.

Your contribution will also help us let more people know about the wonderful USPS Operation Santa ® program. You’ll be empowering us to recruit new volunteers, who will, in turn, adopt letters online and buy gifts for needy kids.

Together, we will make more children in need smile on Christmas morning.

Those are the basics, but we will go into more detail below and answer a few FAQs at the end.

3. A third way to help is to tell your friends about this program, or let needy families know about it. Post or tweet our website to your followers on Facebook or Twitter, and if you like, use our sample Facebook posts or Tweets about Be An Elf, which tell your friends about the USPS Operation Santa ® program.

Below are additional ways you can help. Scroll down and you’ll get tips for gifts to send, and you’ll even learn how you can help create awareness among low-income families that it’s possible to get extra Christmas gifts for their kids this year.

Whether you adopt a letter, donate, or spread the word, you’ll be helping us to recruit new volunteers for the USPS Operation Santa ® program.

Thank you for volunteering and being an Elf! Your and your family will catch the true spirit of Christmas, and you’ll put smiles on more little faces come Christmas morning.

If you’re a child or parent who wants to write to Santa, please see our Seeking Gifts? page.

If you’re an adult interested in volunteering, please read on below. The most frequently asked questions we get are on our FAQs page.

Elf Patrick




No. By 2019 there were only two postal branches that still offered the traditional walk-in program, in New York City and Chicago. Sadly the program for 2020 was canceled due to Covid. It will not reopen in 2021. We will post an update by early December 2022 on our Locations page if the New York and Chicago branches will reopen in 2022.

The good news is, that by putting the letters to Santa online, the wonderful USPS is making them available for adoption in every city and town across America.

Background: Until the USPS Operation Santa program first went online, volunteers could walk in to a limited number of post offices. The number of branches welcoming walk-ins declined from 76 cities to 12 the following year, and in the next year, 2019, only two branches still welcomed traditional walk-in volunteers, in New York City and Chicago, where public demand was tremendous. The addresses of those two are on our Locations page.

We are hoping the walk-in program will return one day.



Please see our Locations page. We’ll guide you and link to the page at where you can search by your zip code.



Before posting letters to Santa online, postal workers give the letters an initial screening. They select the ones which hint, and sometimes shout, that the families need help for the holidays.

Postal workers remove children’s family names and addresses from all letters before posting publicly, and the USPS staff always forward every letter on to Santa, whether or not it gets selected for the site.

When volunteers adopt a letter online, it is removed from view at the site, and they print it out, along with a barcoded shipping label.  Packages must be mailed from any of 19,000 branches that offer the “label broker” service. To locate one near you, visit our Locations page.

Gifts must be mailed by December 10, t0 arrive in time for Christmas.

Letters from those who are struggling financially and seeking help with Christmas should be mailed to Santa Claus, 123 Elf road, North Pole 88888 and reviewed by USPS staff for possible posting online at



Get the word out to needy families with kids, and make them aware they can write to Santa’s volunteers for extra gifts, and that Christmas volunteers are adopting the online letters so fast that on some days, there may not be enough letters to adopt.

So it’s vital to let people who need assistance for the holidays know they can write “to Santa’s volunteer.” We have also suggested to the postal service that they set the website to allow each letter be adopted two or three times by different volunteers, at least on days when there is a shortage of needy letters. This way, more volunteers can participate on those days, and some kids will get a few more gifts.

If not enough families in need write to Santa, there will not be enough appropriate Santa letters at the website. That’s why letting our neediest families with kids need to know they can write to Santa is so important. Here’s how you can help make it happen. 

First, go to Be An Elf’s Press-photos page and download our logo. Use it to create a flyer; put our logo at the top and add this headline under it: FREE CHRISTMAS GIFTS FOR KIDS! ONLY FOR PARENTS ARE WHO ARE STRUGGLING

Below the headline, type this in a smaller font: To learn how to get free gifts or to how volunteer to send gifts, go to

Below that, add this line: Take a photo of this flyer!

Block everything (Control-A) and then hit the Center icon and save it. Print out copies of your new flyer, and post them up in local churches, on community bulletin boards, in markets in poor neighborhoods, in orphanages, youth detention homes, Child Protective Services offices, local foster care agencies, the local unemployment / social security office, prisons and anywhere else you can think of. Many prisoners feel bad that they are unable to buy Christmas gifts for their kids, and they may want to write a letter to Santa for their kids.

In businesses where you post up flyers, start a friendly talk with staff first, and tell them about your flyer. Ask their permission to post it up, and that way, with luck it will not be taken down.



Call or email the news tip lines and editors at local TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers, and urge the “assignment editor” at each to assign a reporter to cover this story. If you leave a voicemail, be sure to say the website slowly and take time to spell it out, as it can be hard to understand.

The news release on our Press Room page is aimed at creating greater public awareness of USPS Operation Santa ® program; email them that link, or fax a printout of the page. Let them know it’s important to get the word out locally to needy families; if you know a needy family who is planning to write a letter, offer to introduce them. That will give them a good interview for the piece, or they may want to interview you, the volunteer. Having someone to interview will make news coverage more likely.

The Postal Service sends out effective news releases every year, but amidst the deluge of news releases, many releases get lost or overlooked. Remind editors to cover this story.

Be An Elf would like to hire a public relations firm this year, and have the help of a large PR firm like Slate, or another on this list of the top 20 Hollywood public relations firms.

We’d ask them to enlist one of their film star clients to volunteer to adopt a letter from home, online. The likely result would be coverage for the USPS Operation Santa program in People Magazine, Access Hollywood, and many other entertainment outlets. Without an A-list star, this branch of the media will not pay much attention. We ask only that they mention at the end of coverage as an excellent guide both for volunteering and for families in need seeking gifts.

In sum, we want to let more people know about Operation Santa, and get them excited about it. Be An Elf’s news releases remind the press to cover this great USPS program.



See our new Plan for Companies. We’d like you to share it with your HR Director, and get corporations involved, too.



As you read online through children’s and parents’ often sad letters to Santa, you’ll select one or more to adopt that speak to you. It might be a very young, single Mom letting you know she’s writing because her child is still too young to write. Take letters from parents and family members seriously, too. So many people are asking for help during the holidays. Read between the lines, and select your letter or letters.

Following that, you’ll purchase gifts for the child or needy family who wrote the letter you adopted. Some volunteers prefer to adopt more letters, and simply send Target or Amazon gift cards to the families. That way, the Moms do all the shopping and gift wrapping.

Many of the letters have been written by kids who ask for specific toys, and ask for new laptops and X-boxes. They are not always so quick to describe the conditions they live in. But postal workers know many of the streets on the return addresses, and that could be a factor in their selection of a letter.

By the way, we do not recommend giving video games! See our list of recommended gifts below.

Some kids are more open about their circumstances, and write that, “Dad lost his job, and we have no money to buy gifts this year,” or, “My Mom cries a lot. Our furniture is old and our refrigerator don’t work too good,” and so on. Others only list toys. Look for signs of need as you read.



Some volunteers organize a group of friends or neighbors, and select letters together and  shop for them in teams. Later, the organizer can have a pot luck Christmas party, wrap gifts together, and share the cost, the tasks and the fun. We wholeheartedly recommend doing this. Contact a few friends and see! You could use our Plan for companies as a starting point; even the draft of a letter to employees at the bottom of that page could be used as a starting point to enlist your friends in this project. We’d suggest you keep the ratio of 3 people for every letter adopted, to control costs and the work.



Share the work, share the cost, and share the fun! Ask each friend to bring one or more gifts, and wrap them all at your party.

Including a link to our site with your invitation will help get your friends excited about the project. Feel free to copy a few words from our Home page to explain the idea to your guests, and use Twitter and Facebook or eVite. But what works best is one on one phone calls.

You could send your guests a list of suggested toys to bring, based both on the letters adopted and our gift recommendations, below. Share copies of the letters to Santa you adopted at the gathering, or ask everyone to bring one letter they adopted.

Remember that the cost of answering just one letter can reach $70 to $100, so to keep the per person cost reasonable and affordable, you might want to stick to a ratio of three or four friends for every letter your group adopts.

Before the party, delegate the shopping, perhaps one to two gifts per guest. Get together again to wrap the gifts with your friends. Some friends may prefer to contribute cash. Finally, a small group of you will need to return to the original post office to mail your gifts.

Again, our Plan for Companies to adopt letters as a group can easily be applied to this, and it will also help you formuate a timeline and provide a list of tasks. Take a look!

In 2009, Elf Lauren of Brooklyn, NY,  e-mailed us to say that she chose six letters. She wrote that she organized a party for neighbors in her apartment building, and sent them each a wish list of specific gifts requested by kids in the letters she got. Her group bought gifts for six Moms and 13 children; some of the letters she chose had mentioned siblings.

Guests were asked to bring a gift to her party, or to make a donation to help fund her shopping.

The following year, 2010, she got her whole apartment building involved. She approached everyone through Facebook, even her Condo Board.

We think having a party is a creative way to share the fun, the cost and the work involved.

Be An Elf!



Elf Hans Dohm, who was the initial inspiration for this website, always bought gifts using his own money and shopped together with his friend Julie.

He told us he spent an average of about $60 per letter and got gifts for the whole family, not least the Moms. The ten households Hans chose in 2004 required a cash outlay of about $600 on his part. You may not wish to buy gifts for ten letters!

Hans told us that in his years of doing this, he was often greeted by a single Mom at the door. So he began including small gifts for the Mom in each family, and he thought that would make a small difference to her.

What you spend is up to you — but anything at all you can contribute will help make a child’s Christmas brighter.



Please don’t write to us asking us to send you money or send gifts directly to your kids. Our group adopts letters online or in person ONLY through the USPS program. We also spread the word about this wonderful program, recruit new volunteers for it, and plenty more. See our Writing to Santa?  page if you are seeking gifts. Our tips will really help! Be an Elf!



When your gifts are wrapped and ready for mailing, you’ll need to mail your gift. This must be done by December 20th. If you adopted the letter online, when you printed out your letter, you also printed an address label to go with it. If you adopted the letter in person at one of the two walk-in branches in NYC and Chicago, your letter might have a code written on it.

Write only the code from each child’s letter on your outer package, or apply the address label, and then purchase postage for it at that branch on the same day.

NOTE: The USPS will not permit purchasing postage for a package with no address, so buy the postage when you drop off your gifts for mailing.

There are 19,000 postal branches in the US which offer “label scanning”. Find one on our Locations page.



Some of the letters to Santa you’ll read are written by Moms writing on behalf of their kids, who are often to little to write. Most who write likely know about the USPS’ Operation Letters to Santa ® program. They know when the program starts, because every year by early December, many of the participating post offices are already flooded with letters asking Santa for basic necessities.

It’s likely, too, that some of the Moms help their children as they write to Santa. Many of the letters in children’s handwriting cite the names and correct clothing sizes of all their younger siblings. To give kids the benefit of a doubt, more than a few children may have thought of their siblings in need entirely on their own, without any help from Mom. Of course younger siblings are often too little to write, and it makes sense that a low income Mom would write on their behalf.

Many Moms simply choose to write to Santa themselves; they almost always include the names, ages and clothing sizes of their kids. Some have babies and small children who can’t write to Santa on their own, of course.

The first instinct of many volunteers is to answer only Santa letters from children, and not from Moms. However, we have come to see how real the Mom’s letters are, and believe that the vast majority of these women are honest and writing Santa from their hearts, sometimes as a cry for help.

Indeed, only people in real need are likely to write to Santa asking for such basic household items. Many of the women who write are single Moms who are feeling sad and alone over the holidays. When we delivered gifts in person in the old days, before 2008, one Mom broke down in tears on her doorstep, saying she had no money to buy her kids gifts. She was totally surprised, as only her child wrote to Santa. You can view our photos page, for photos of her as she cried. It was moving for me and my friend Hans, as volunteers, to be sure.

This is about kids of course, but we’ve concluded that Operation Santa is also about helping the Moms with their kids, and making the kids smile.

In sum, I encourage our volunteers to read the Mom’s letters, too, and take them as seriously as they take the letters from children. We even recommend enclosing a small gift for Moms, too; see below.



If the child’s letter mentions any siblings, you may wish to include gifts for them, lest some in the family get less than others. So we encourage including a small gift for the Mom, such as a toiletry item, perhaps cologne or a scented candle. Often the children writing to Santa are living with a single parent who may be feeling sad and alone over Christmas. Many have small babies, and it’s a difficult time for them. Your small gift may be the only present the Mom will get on Christmas morning. Their letters tell their stories.



We recommend marking your gifts “from Santa”, if you wish to. Selfless giving is sometimes the most rewarding kind, and more importantly, it’s fun to keep kids believing in Santa! Think about it. To be sure, that will be your call entirely.



In 2009 I flew to Washington DC to meet with some high USPS ® executives at the national headquarters.  I learned that the USPS ® was posting a loss in the billions that year, due in part to the rise of email, huge annual USPS ® pension obligations, and other factors.

We met to discuss the new policy of redacting children’s family names and home addresses from letters. I pitched them the idea of developing new software to data-enter their addresses, and more, and that is what they eventually did.

Christmas is the postal service’s busiest time of year. It’s much to their credit that the USPS ® faithfully retained the walk-in program in major cities, where the public’s demand for children’s letters has been strongest.

After much preparation, in 2019 the Postal Service ran a pilot program to take USPS Operation Santa entirely online. By that year, the number of walk-in branches had dwindled from 70 to 20 to 2. In 2020 and 2021, because of the Covid pandemic, the last two branches to welcome walk-ins, New York and Chicago, closed the program — but the online program was born in 2020.

Happily, by 2019 they had made a major investment in taking the program national, online. The letters may now be adopted from home anywhere in the US, and gifts may be shipped from 19,000 postal branches.

By investing in the new online program launched in 2019, the USPS not only revitalized the time-honored program, but they also used technology to guarantee that many times more low-income children than in previous years will be smiling on Christmas morning. Bravo, USPS!



Companies traditionally have been permitted to adopt 50 to 100 letters. We’ve written a new plan through which any employee may become an organizer, with the approval of management. Or management can become involved at the highest level. See our new Plan for companies at this site.



Our friend Hans Dohm was an volunteer Elf for many years. He told us he would typically read 50 to 100 letters, and buy gifts for ten families. He bought each family an average of $10 gifts for $6 to $10 each. His cost per family was $75 on average.

That’s a lot! We recommend that you start small, with one to three families, since you may be tempted to take on more children than you can actually provide gifts for. There are so many!

You can see Hans’ photo on our Who we Are page with more of Hans on our Photos page.

Be realistic, and don’t overextend yourself, we want you back again next Christmas! So start small, and know that you are making a difference to a family in your community.

One way to manage the cost is to have a party where friends contribute gifts for kids, and wrap them together, is a great idea.

Whether you send wrapped gifts or a Target or K-Mart gift card is up to you. One year, as our Elf Patrick and team were selecting Be An Elf’s initial pile of letters to send gifts to, we noticed an elderly lady adopting ten (10!) letters. We asked how she planned to answer all those letters, and she looked up and replied with a wise smile, “Oh, I just send them all Target or K-Mart gift cards. I put them in a gift wrapped box, so it doesn’t look like cash!”

This choice is up to every volunteer, but we don’t need to remind you that small kids do love getting presents under the tree, and it’s unclear how Mom will spend your money. If you do choose to send a Target or K-Mart gift card, at least the parent would have to spend it at those stores — and they know best what to buy for their kids. We have faith that the great majority of the parents will buy presents for their kids, including things they need.

Either way, select only those letters you can truly fulfill. Commit firmly to yourself before you adopt online. When in doubt adopt less letters, even though many of the letters you read pull at your heart. Please don’t let a child’s letter to Santa go unanswered, because that needy letter might get adopted by another volunteer.

Again, a great and fun way to handle a large number of letters, perhaps five to ten letters, is to give a Christmas party. 

Hans Dohm and his friend Julie would typically respond to each letter with a package of ten gifts, ranging from $6 to $10 each. They included gifts for siblings who were mentioned in letters, as well as a gift for the Moms. If you wish to do the same, consider that one letter may be enough for your Christmas party. It’s a good deal of work to volunteer for this alone, but that can offer rewarding as well.


Hans Dohm found surprisingly deep rewards in being an Elf. In December, 2005, he and his friend Julie chose eleven letters to fulfill. Our Elf Patrick was there helping. Some are posted on our Real Letters page. They did the shopping and gift wrapping at home together, and delivered their gifts in person to the needy families on Christmas eve. Smiles all around! As we said, since 2008 only postal workers may deliver gifts.

Hans is a modest, quiet man of depth. He told us he was always humble and very respectful when delivering his gifts, which could be done in person in those days. He never let the family know that he was answering a child’s letter to Santa Claus, and his gift tags simply read, “From Santa.” This kept the smaller kids believing in Santa, and most parents prefer that.

He never gave used clothes or toys, only new ones, as he was sensitive to the feelings of the families he bought gifts for.

We agree — your used things should go to goodwill! Giving selflessly is perhaps the core of Christmas spirit.

Operation Santa


Postal workers read and sort the letters, and are good at telling which letters are from truly needy kids. For example, if a child is asking for a “warm coat” or food, or clothes for other family members, that’s a sign of true need.

Some of the letters will be from Moms, most of them single and in poverty. Yes, some of them will already know about this program, and that is apparent in reading some of the Moms’ letters. While some readers may think the worst and be cynical, our feeling is that they would not be writing, asking strangers for clothes and other necessities, unless they were really in need.

Use your judgment, and pick letters which speak to your heart.

Postal workers who read and screen the letters to Santa have often done this in the past. They know what to look for.

The letters which moved us the most, to which Hans Dohm and Julie responded with gifts, are posted at our Real Letters page.


At the risk of repeating our mentions of this above, if your budget permits, do your best to include gifts for parents and siblings. A large percentage of Americans live below the poverty line and are single parents. Like some of Elves who volunteer, many of the Moms, and some Dads, also feel lonely and sad during the holidays.

So, in addition to answering a child’s request of Santa, Hans almost always included gifts from Santa for the parent the child referred to in their letter. Hans would buy gifts for siblings, too, lest they might feel left out and get jealous — and if an only child, guess who got ALL the gifts!

Just read the child’s letter, look into your heart, and you will know what to do.

Some volunteers simply send Target or other gift cards — they’re easy to wrap and mail, and it’s a good bet that Mother knows best what will make her children smile.


Great gift ideas for kids include backpacks or book bags for school, pens, paper, and other school supplies, and new clothes, like little T-shirts. It’s wonderful, too, if you can answer the child’s wish in their letter. They often specify clothing and even sizes, probably with a little help from Mom.

Note that used clothing or articles will not be so well received. As mentioned above, we do not recommend giving your used clothes. They may be poor, but many are proud and sensitive about being needy. They may feel insulted. Give your used things to Goodwill.

The parents are often single Moms, and we suggest adding a gift for Mom which she could not afford to buy for herself, like a simple cologne or special holiday treat.

Think of things you might like to receive if you had no money to spare for a small luxury. New items of quality are always welcome.

If your budget permits, try to remember siblings or other kids who may live in the same house, too. Often, kids write about their siblings in their letters to Santa.

Hans Dohm would always buy about 10 gifts per household, wrap them all individually, and tag them all “From Santa Claus.”


Please post a link to this site on your Twitter, Instagram or Facebook pages, or post photos or videos of your time volunteering, Santa letter/s you adopted, and your Be An Elf party, too. Share our Facebook and Twitter pages, too; the icons are at top.

Please send us your photos and we’ll post them on our Facebook page. If you email us using the form on our Contact page, you will get an auto-reply with our direct email on it. Thank you!



Only postal workers deliver gifts to children. In 2008, because of concerns about children’s privacy, the postal service started a new policy of removing children’s return addresses from all letters and replacing them with a coded number. Sadly, it’s no longer possible for volunteer Elves to deliver gifts to the homes they are intended for.

Volunteers instead may adopt children’s letters online at and print out a coded address label with their letters. After shopping and getting their gifts ready for mailing, they must return to the post office, add postage to the packages, and mail them at any postal branch with “Label Scanning”. See our Locations page. Postal workers then deliver gifts — it’s their turn to be elves for Santa. Some even work delivering packages on Christmas Day, dressed as Santa Claus.

Also see our FAQs page.

If you can’t volunteer your time, please donate online to Be An Elf or give by check.

Your donation to Be An Elf will further our mission and help us recruit new volunteers. Put smiles on more kids’ faces by empowering us to recruit new volunteers!

Another great way to support our mission is to let your friends know about our group. If you like, use our suggested draft of a message to your friends to tell them about us. Feel free to rewrite the message any way you wish.

Post a link to this page on your Facebook page, or Tweet about us!

Thanks for being an Elf!


Help us bring smiles to needy kids on Christmas morning.

Only volunteers sending gifts should contact us. Santa will not see your message here! If you're seeking gifts, contact Santa's Christmas volunteers through our Writing to Santa page. If you want to give gifts, click below.


Separation Decoration

Be An Elf is a tax-exempt 501c3 children's Christmas charity. Contributions are tax-deductible. We are not affiliated with USPS Operation Santa® but we support it by creating public awareness of the program online and in social media, by recruiting and orienting new volunteers to the program, and by offering tips to needy families writing to Santa. Be An Elf also uses donations to adopt letters to Santa and send gifts to the kids who wrote them. We will never share your info with third parties; see Be An Elf's privacy policy. ©2020 Be An Elf - All rights reserved.