NEW YORK – Supporters from around the country and abroad are sending as many as 100 letters a day — sometimes with money, weather gear or packages of cookies — to the Occupy Wall Street protesters, reaching them through a UPS branch near their Zuccotti Park encampment.
"Please accept these humble donations," wrote one sender who did not disclose a name. "I am poor and am fighting foreclosure, but if you are willing to occupy and keep this message alive, I will support you."
With some of the letters are parcels of ponchos, gloves or camping gear for demonstrators. A good number of the senders apologize for being unable to send more donations because of their own financial problems.
Since the protests began on Sept. 17, volunteers at Zuccotti Park say they've received about 2,000 letters from the unemployed, college students in debt and grandmothers worried about the financial struggles of younger generations. The letters have arrived from all over the United States and from abroad, addressed from South Korea, Australia, Scotland and Germany. They bear messages of hope, advice on tactics and criticism. Some have now been posted online.
The parcels and letters are taken over to a storage depot in an office building where the donations are sorted. There are shelves of canned food, bags of dry pasta, piles of hand warmers and half-opened boxes waiting to be sorted. On a recent weekday, there were well over 100 letters waiting to be processed in a mail bin. Some were handwritten, others typed on a computer.
"I can honestly say for the first time in my cynical, contrarian years that I am damn proud to be an American!" said one writer, using pink ink, who described herself as a college student.
"Dear 99ers!" began a handwritten letter sent by someone identifying himself as Henry King, from Glasgow, U.K., who writes of parallels between the Wall Street protests and recent demonstrations in Europe. "It is gratifying to watch you channel your righteous anger into organized and active resistance."
More critical was a letter from someone who signed his name as Al Ross, a senior living in Florida. "The movement is growing, but if leadership doesn't emerge soon, then it will turn into an unruly mob scene. At all costs, this has to be prevented," he wrote on yellow pad paper in pen, referring to the leaderless, consensus approach of the Occupy Wall Street protest.
One of the few outright negative letters came from China. "P.S., occupying Wall Street is not right," wrote a person identified as Yi Hu at the School of Economics at Peking University, after an extended discussion of economic theory. "Financial system which is essential part of our economy system is engine of our economy."
The letters are sorted by volunteers like Steve Iskovitz, 51, of Pittsburgh, an unemployed mental health worker who was laid off in 2009 when his company lost funding. He said he was encouraged by the letters.
"I feel inspired in a way that I haven't been in years," he said.
But while they are inspiring, some of the letters are painful testimonies of their authors' economic difficulties.
A 50-year-old "self-employed handyman" wrote in a two-page letter that he, "like so many others, watched the American dream turn into an unattainable fantasy." After writing about thousands of dollars owed for medical bills, struggling to find full-time work and being "tossed out and treated like an obsolete piece of furniture after 17 years of loyalty" by a "large firm that transported automobiles," he said that "the future has been absolutely devoid of any significance."
"Then I heard about OWS," he wrote of the Occupy Wall Street movement. "It offers something that has been in very short supply these days — hope. Hope that maybe we can make a difference."
Bette Snyder, 69, a retired journalist who writes cookbooks with her daughter, sends sustenance from her kitchen in Upper Sandusky in northwestern Ohio. For the past three weeks, she's sent tins of home-baked cookies — oatmeal raisin, gingersnaps and peanut chocolate — and messages of support.
"Here are some cookies for the demonstrators," she wrote in one note. "I will keep sending them as long as you keep protesting."
"I'm like a rebel at heart," she said in a phone interview. "If I was in New York, I would be down there."
She said she shares the demonstrators' concerns about economic inequities.
"I think the income disparity has really troubled me for about the past decade. And it just seems to get worse," she said. "I just think that young people are having a hard time. They are doing the right things by getting an education, and borrowing a lot of money to do it, but jobs aren't there... The wealth is too heavily concentrated on the top."
Those concerns were bolstered this week by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, which said that the richest 1 percent of Americans have gotten richer in the last 30 years, while the poor and middle class have seen tiny gains, by comparison. And the independent Bertelsmann Foundation, based in Gutersloh, Germany, found the distribution of wealth in this country is the most unequal of industrialized nations it studied, with more than 17 percent of Americans living below the poverty line.
Anna Rowinski, 57, is one of those who are struggling to make ends meet. In a message to the protesters, she wrote: "I'm in your shoes and on your side!"
Reached by phone in Holyoke, Maine, where she recently moved in with her aging mother to take care of her, Rowinski said she thinks the Occupy Wall Street movement has captured the "overall feeling that things can't be going on the way they have been."
"It's all the money," she said. "If you don't have money, you're a nobody."
Follow Cristian Salazar at http://twitter.com/crsalazarAP.