Hometown Heroes: U.S. Postal Service collects letters for athletes

After combing through more than 40,000 suggestions for 2015 stamp topics, the U.S. Postal service decided that one of this year's honorees would be the Special Olympics World Games. As part of the celebration of the stamp and in support of the athletes competing at the World Games this summer, the U.S. Postal Service has been collecting letters and cards offering encouragement for Special Olympics athletes. Mike Henry, national events coordinator at the Postal Service, has led the program that has collected more than 5,000 letters so far. We asked him some questions about the impact of the program for both athletes and the USPS. Want to send your own message? Find out more here.

ESPN.com's Brianne Mirecki: How did you kick off this program and find letter writers?

Mike Henry: May 9 is when we did the first stamp issue. We did that [with the] Special Olympics in Irvine, California, at one of their regional games . . . [Through] a network of folks across the country with the Postal Service . . . and through friends [and] family, we came up with 4,000 letters that we presented to the Special Olympics at the May 9 ceremony. And then at the Unified Relay, the torch kickoff on May 26 [in Washington D.C.], we announced the program publicly and we've been getting, I don't know, I'm over 5,000 letters total, so since May 26 we've gotten another thousand letters here that we forward on to the Special Olympics.

ESPN.com: Who was writing most of the letters?

Henry: It started off with postal employees and their friends and families -- a lot of school kids, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts -- just postal folks getting involved in their communities. We have the advantage of being in every community in the United States so we reached out to all the corporate communication folks and it's a wide reach.

ESPN.com: What has your experience been interacting with the Special Olympics as the program has grown?

Henry: It's been great. It's very moving. It was 900 athletes in Irvine so you get to watch them march in, opening ceremonies-style. They're just very enthusiastic about what they do. The families are very enthusiastic about them participating, about being there cheering them on. And then, on the other aspect, the people who are writing the letters, it seems like we're introducing a lot of folks to the Special Olympics for the first time, just like myself, learning about it. You see school kids saying, 'I don't know anything about Special Olympics but I wish you luck,' but then you also get a letter from someone who says, you know, 'my little brother is special, maybe he'll compete one day' and they'll draw a picture of their little brother on the back. So it runs the gamut.

ESPN.com: Have you gotten a sense from the athletes what it means to receive the letters?

Henry: No, I've been passing [the letters] on to Special Olympics and they're the ones that are spreading them out to the athletes. So I haven't. [But] we had the 900 athletes participate in the reveal of the stamp. They all had posters of the stamp when we were doing that at the ceremony, but beyond that the letters have been passed on the Special Olympics to hand out to their folks.

ESPN.com: Have you personally written any letters?

Henry: Yes! My daughter and I went to an event at the National Postal Museum here in Washington D.C., [which] got involved. They had a pep rally for [the] Special Olympics and we went down and wrote some postcards and stuff with everyone else that was participating.

ESPN.com: How have your responsibilities expanded as more people have gotten involved with this program?

Henry: Not much, it's manageable right now. Hopefully, at some point I might have to bring more people in, but it's not like I'm reading all the letters. I'm collecting them and just forwarding them onto the Special Olympics so it's just part of my normal duties at the moment. Between now and July I don't know if it'll expand more, but it hasn't been overwhelming.

ESPN.com: What are your goals for the program for the rest of the summer?

Henry: We want to continue it; hopefully it'll spread. We've definitely had post offices involved as the torch comes through their communities. It's almost like I'm watching letters come in as the torch passes through the country. Communities and people are using that as a catalyst to get groups involved . . . Once things are over I think the Special Olympics wants to see where we take it from there. We're probably going to go through the end of August and see if there's still momentum or still a need for it, but in the end we've introduced a lot of people to the Special Olympics and hopefully they'll keep up getting involved in the programs or connecting with the athletes.

ESPN.com: Overall, what has been your impression of working with the Special Olympics and how do you think it's impacted you and the Postal Service?

Henry: It's very moving. I was at the Washington Monument the morning that they launched the torch here in Washington, D.C., and again, you see smiles on the athletes' faces, you see the crowd was very moved about folks, then getting excited about moving the torch and heading towards the ball games. I've been fortunate to talk to some of the athletes and to me, you're just moved by their enthusiasm and if anything, from the experience the day of the ceremony, how normal the athletic activity seemed. It seemed like the families and everybody else, this was just another day for them out on the athletic fields as if it was any other program going on in the community. To me the normalcy was something that moved me and surprised me.

ESPN.com: Why do you think this was something that the Postal Service wanted to get involved in?

Henry: It's writing letters. One of our initiatives for the Postal Service is to get people writing letters and it seems like we're introducing that to another generation by giving the school kids, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, this type of program. Letter writing is definitely becoming a lost art, which, you know, here at the Postal Service that's certainly not what we want to see. Our instructions for people when they're writing a letter is, 'hey, draw a picture.' A hand-drawn picture is much better than receiving an email or something that's not as personal. So we wanted to introduce letter writing to people who might not normally write letters.

ESPN.com: Is there any reason why the Special Olympics is a particularly good vehicle for letter writing?

Henry: Because we introduced the stamp and it's for the Games. I mean, I'm not the one who picks what the topics are, but it's a natural fit. The U.S. has 300-something athletes (344 U.S. athletes) participating, there's 7,000 athletes participating around the world. If there's something we can do to cheer them on and encourage them, it just seemed to marry both organizations together in writing letters to athletes.