CINCINNATI (AP) -- Every morning before they get down to business reading letters to a certain Jolly Old Elf, the Dalton Avenue Post Office's Angels on Assignment stand in the middle of their office. They hold hands, bow their heads and say this prayer:
"God, give us the gift of discernment. Help us recognize which ones are real and which ones are not."
Then they start opening letters from the 24-county Tristate region served by the Queensgate postal complex. Some are written in crayon. Most come from needy families. All are simply addressed: "Dear Santa."
With every letter Betty Smith reads, the veteran postal worker and chief Angel on Assignment separates the real ones -- asking for socks and shoes -- from the ones that are not -- the letters asking for Sony TVs. She ends each letter with a silent prayer:
"Dear God, please see that someone helps this family."
After that, she gently reminds the Big Postmaster in the Sky this is her last holiday season on the job. She's retiring after 34 years at the post office and nine as a "Dear Santa" angel.
"I'm bittersweet about retiring," she said. "I'm handing things over to my two angels," Smith added, nodding to postal workers Tanya Lawson and Ray Butts. Lawson is in her second year as an angel, Butts his fourth.
"The 'Dear Santa' operation will be in good hands," Smith said in late November. "But their hands will be busy. There's so much need out there. We have 121 letters right now. Last year, we didn't have that many until Dec. 4. This year, we got our first 'Dear Santa' letter on Sept. 13."
She sat with her fellow angels at their traditional holiday post, a red-and-green trimmed table decorated for Santa inside the marble and brass-adorned lobby of the art-deco, Depression-era Dalton Avenue post office.
She spread a stack of "Dear Santa" letters across the table. She hoped a passerby would stop, read one of the letters and be moved to help the family anonymously by bringing in some wrapped gifts so the post office can play Santa.
"There is a lot of sadness in these letters this year," Smith warned. "Lots of grandparents taking care of their babies' babies. There's homelessness. There's unemployment."
Sentences from the letters read as if they were torn from today's headlines:
"Dear Santa, Both of my parents are in jail. They took drugs."
"I'm living with my great-grandmother. She has bad legs and knees."
"My mother lost her job."
"The apartment we lived in went into foreclosure. Now we live in my grandma's basement."
"We lost our sheets and pillows to bed bugs in our apartment building."
"Please Santa, help us. We would love a nice turkey meal so mom won't have to cook & burn our food. We all have been good. Love, Danny. P.S. We don't need toys."
Smith held onto one letter.
"There's always one that tears out my heart," she said. Handing over the letter, she wiped her eyes.
The letter, from "Miss Jean" was about "a 16-year-old nice boy named Trey." He's a neighbor whose mother "has not worked in years" because of a bad back injury. Now, his dad is "off work due to an injury." Trey has "never had anything new" to wear his whole life.
Miss Jean told Santa that Trey needs shirts, shoes and pants. As a special treat, he'd like a baseball cap "with no straps in the back."
"That line about the baseball cap did it for me," Smith said.
She looked at the steady stream of package-toting customers. Many of them glanced at the angels' table and then adopted the line from "Pretty Paper," Willie Nelson's Christmas carol: "Should you stop? Better not. Much too busy."
Ashley Tongret, Cincinnati Opera communications manager, was not that busy. After mailing her packages, the Fort Thomas woman came over to the table and chose a letter to Santa from Rachel, a single mother of an 11-year-old daughter, "my world, my rock. I did have a good job, but I was let go. The only money I do make -- whether it's babysitting or housekeeping -- goes to pay the bills and the necessities." Her daughter always tells her "everything will be OK." So, Rachel asked Santa for "some assistance for this Christmas from you for my Sunshine."
Tongret explained why she stopped. "I got a little raise this year," she said. "I figured some of that could go to help someone."
Smith listened to those words. Then, she wept.
"See what you're going to miss next year?" Lawson said.
Smith told her: "I'll come back next year. I'll have to."
Lawson asked why. Smith smiled. Both knew the answer.
"Dear Santa" Angels can't retire.
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com