Person of the Week: Alexa Donaphin

Dec. 23, 2005 — -- Every December for the past 15 years, Alexa Donaphin has made her way to New York City's main post office to participate in Operation Santa Claus. More than 400,000 Santa letters get rerouted there from the North Pole. The post office makes it possible for anyone to select letters from underprivileged children and then fulfill their Christmas wishes.

"We live in the most magnificent and the wealthiest city in the world, and yet there is so much poverty here and so much need and so much want that we don't even understand it, don't even recognize that it's right here coexisting with everything else," Donaphin said.

But she does recognize she can do something about it -- something very special.

"I stay until they throw me out, usually," Donaphin said. "But now, since I'm sort of a regular and I know the people so well there, they'll tend to push me over in the corner to give me a little more time."

Thousands of letters are filled with requests from families with not enough food to eat or warm clothes to wear. That is where Donaphin comes in. And she never takes just one letter -- this year she chose 24.

"I look primarily for need, fundamental basic need: food, clothing, school supplies," she said. "I look for people in shelters. I look for single moms, as I was once a single parent."

Her daughter, Bethany, helped her until she went to college. Now Donaphin recruits her own band of elves -- colleagues at her architectural firm.

"We have sort of a routine thing and people look forward to it and then will even start to ask me, 'When are you going to go get the letters?'" she said.

Santa's Helper

With letters in hand, Donaphin goes shopping for specifics, though she shops all year long for things every child wants and needs, like toys and books.

"People rush about spending more than they should on things they don't need when, in fact, it all has to come down to the perspective of people not having enough to eat, of children having to go to bed without a blanket, without a coat to wear to school, without boots for the winter," she said.

On Christmas morning, Donaphin loads up her car and hand-delivers all her gifts. She has a story ready in case the children ask why Santa Claus himself isn't coming down their chimney.

"I just tell them that I'm one of Santa's helpers, and that he had a lot of good children so that it took more people to help him out," she said.

Santa Claus should be very pleased to have a helper like Donaphin.

"The blessing for me is in that opportunity and the hope that it brings to give someone else something meaningful and lasting," she said. "And I'm not talking about the gift -- I'm talking about the care behind that.

"I remember a Hispanic man running after me after I had left, and he ran all the way down the hall to catch up with me," she said. "And he said, 'May I please know your name?' and I said, 'My name is Alexa. Merry Christmas.'"

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