The following story was printed in 2008.
ST. LOUIS - In the heart of this city, buried within the files of a national nonprofit agency, are more than 12,000 one- or two-paragraph summaries of the neediest, most troubled families in St. Louis.
Each year, a few dozen volunteers - most of them mothers who drive in weekly from the suburbs - must cull these cases, and from the thousands of needy, pick the 100 neediest.
One hundred featured in the pages of this newspaper. One hundred adopted by families across the region.
One hundred examples of the thousands who need help this holiday season.
Some are families driven from homes by fire, still homeless. Others are great-grandmothers raising their children's children's children. One is a cancer patient struggling to care for disabled sons.
All 12,752 will get something.
But those selected as the 100 Neediest will be highlighted in this newspaper, a few each day, for five weeks. They will almost certainly be adopted, given gifts, and more. They will also serve the greater good, driving donations to the thousands of other cases.
Four years ago, the volunteers sorted through 9,000 cases. The year after, 10,000. Last year, 11,000. This year, well more than 12,000.
The task is painstaking.
"Almost every story we read could be one of the 100 Neediest, " said Peggy Weiler of Sunset Hills, who has volunteered for the United Way campaign for seven years.
This year, the process began in October. The volunteers came to the United Way's downtown St. Louis offices. Each person read hundreds and hundreds of cases, keeping only the most severe.
Then, one dreary day at the end of last month, seven volunteers met to cull the final 400 down to 100.
The luckiest of the unluckiest.
The women arrived with highlighters and manila folders, water bottles and tissue boxes.
The cases sat on the table in front of them. Each picked up a stack.
And they started to read.
At first, the women moved quickly.
Some highlighted key words - "liver cancer, " "grandchildren, " "fixed income" - almost clinically. Some read stoically, and turned over the discarded cases. Some grimaced, thin-lipped, rubbed chins and brows, and then sorted. And some broadcast the most horrific details to the room, clearly hoping that voicing the disasters would bring solace.
The stacks dwindled. The discarded pile grew.
But by noon, the women still had 180: Sixty-one in the illness/disability folder, 32 grandparents, 24 single moms, 13 catastrophes, and so on.
"We need to split up, " said Weiler, the group's de facto leader.
"This is the part I hate, " said Judy Abell, of St. Louis, who's been volunteering for 14 years.
"Let's get started, " said Weiler. "About 75 need to go, guys."
"So get rid of about one of every three?" asked Kathy Ortinau, from Des Peres, in her 11th year.
"Almost one of every two, " said Weiler.
"Oh, my gosh, " said Ortinau.
And for the next several minutes, the women were quiet. Occasionally, one would sigh, or breathe deeply, or even exclaim:
But, slowly, they crossed numbers off each folder, cropping the last 175 to roughly 100.
"This is so painful, " said Abell.
"It pulls at our heartstrings, " said Ortinau.
"We know, " said Weiler, "how fortunate we've been."
But, as happens every year, what touches these women in the end is not so much the troubles and disasters they read, but the things the needy asked for this Christmas:
A 17-year-old, living on her own, wants a bus pass, senior graduation fees and size-8 shoes.
A grandmother, raising three grandchildren, wants books, eyeglasses, cleaning supplies and hair bows.
A single mother and six children - all sleeping on the floor - want a dining table, silverware, dishes and beds.
Each year, nearly each volunteer finds one such story, somewhere within those 12,000, and tucks it away for herself.
They never tell the recipient who they are, never mention who gave such gifts.
But they can each still speak to the impact.
A single father was dying of kidney failure. He couldn't get onto the organ transplant list because his teeth were so rotten, his gums so infected, doctors said the operation was too risky.
All he wanted for Christmas was gifts for his kids.
The volunteer gathered her family.
Her family pooled its money.
And it paid to replace the man's teeth.