The chain letter says that a young man is terminally ill. His biggest wish is to get into the Guinness Book of Records for collecting the greatest number of business cards. Please send a business card, the letter asks, and pass the request to ten others.
And they, in turn, pass it to ten more, and they pass it to ten others.
As a result, 300,000 business cards a week--including those of five presidents, movie and television stars, fashion designers, foreign dignitaries and retired generals H.Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell--are piling up at the Atlanta-based Children's Wish Foundation.
The foundation desperately wants it to stop, because there is no child collecting business cards. Compassionate do-gooders, however, have turned the chain letter into the postal equivalent of the Energizer bunny--it just keeps going and going and going.
The original plea for cards was genuine. In1989, Craig Shergold, an 11-year-old boy from Surrey, England, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor. He wanted to make it into theGuinness Book of Records for having received the most get-well cards. The Children's Wish Foundation took on his cause and, a year later, he earned a listing with 15 million cards. But the cards didn't stop. In 1992, Shergold made it again with 30 million cards. Guinness retired the category.
One of Shergold's wealthier benefactors--the foundation is keeping mum on the name--took things a step further and arranged for the little boy and his family to visit a neurologist in the United States. The tumor was encapsulated and later removed.
"Craig has damage from radiation and chemotherapy. He has motor-coordination difficulties. And he probably has internal damage, but he's alive," says Linda Dorsortz, executive director of the Children's Wish Foundation. "He is now totally free of disease."
Shergold, who is now 17, is coming back to America on Saturday for some follow-up work.
Meanwhile, his request for cards has taken on a life of its own.
It's generating more than 300,000 pieces of mail a week at the Children's Wish Foundation, whose address has changed three times since the one listed on the chain letter.
More than 20 volunteers process mail through 10,000 square feet of donated warehouse space. Cards and letters are recycled. Gifts are distributed to other Children's Wish Foundation kids.
Dorsortz describes the volume of mail as "incomprehensible, floor to ceiling in 27 offices. You can't even walk down the hall."
The chain letter has contained varying versions of Craig Shergold's name, including Greg, Kelly and Brian, and Sherehold, Sherwood and Sherford. His age ranges between 4 and 18 years old.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, based in Phoenix, also has been dragged into the card campaign. Shergold was never one of its charges, but the organization, which is better known than Children's Wish Foundation, is listed as the organization of record on a chain letter making the rounds in Arizona.
Francis Hall, marketing specialist at Make-A-Wish, compares the card onslaught to "amajor game of Whisper Down the Lane," in which new participants inexorably distort the original message. The foundation finally set up an 800 number with a prerecorded message explaining the Shergold story and begging people to stop sending cards.
"No one from Make-A-Wish has ever had anything to do with this," Hall says. Still, the organization receives as many as 1,000 calls a month.
The chain letter came to Phoenix recently when Joseph Johnson, executive director of the Maricopa County Housing Authority, got a copy from a former colleague in California.
"I thought, 'If this kid feels like he wants to do this, it's his last wish, let's go with it,'" Johnson says. "If you have something tostrive for, it gives him a goal, it might help."
He sent a business card and passed the letter to colleagues across the state.
Brenda Robbins, executive director of the Housing Authority in the town of Eloy, was one of them.
"I opened it up and thought, 'Oh, this poor kid.' I did it right away. I was thinking I'd better hurry up and get this thing out. This kid is going to die."
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She sent a card and copied the letter to ten friends. So did most of the other recipients.
It's impossible to track the letter, which winds its way through nearly 100 offices a week. Since mid-September, it's landed at businesses all over Arizona, including Arizona Public Service Company, the City of Phoenix, State Board of Pardons and Parole, Maricopa County Hospital, Arizona Department of Health Services, Norwest Bank, Phoenix Union High School District, every housing agency in the state, and New Times.
"Usually, I get these letters and they go into the garbage," says Jack Caroline, director of the Mesa Housing Authority. "But I read it. It caught my attention. It seemed like a worthwhile endeavor, and I sent my card and a bunch of other old cards I had sitting around."
The foundations' pleas for the chain to break have been reported by CNN, Eye to Eye With Connie Chung, Prime Time Live, People magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Dear Abby. To no avail. Apparently, the chain letter is more powerful than the news media.