"I remember being a kid and my peers would run up and say, 'Hey! Your dad sent me this,'" Congressman Matt Gaetz said. "Dad was always big on student achievement. After I was elected, I continued and it's honestly a highlight of the job."
FORT WALTON BEACH — As a young boy, Matt Gaetz remembers his father, former state Sen. Don Gaetz, signing letters of recognition to constituents in Northwest Florida.
Now as congressman, Gaetz said he proudly follows in his father’s footsteps to write his own recognition letters to honor achievements in his community.
"I remember being a kid and my peers would run up and say, 'Hey! Your dad sent me this,' " Gaetz said. "Dad was always big on student achievement. After I was elected, I continued and it's honestly a highlight of the job."
Gaetz said he also played a role in writing recognition letters for politicians while working as an unpaid intern at the start of his political career.
“My job was to go through the local paper, find achievements of the local residents and then cut them out so they could be recognized,” Gaetz said.
Sending letters of recognition dates back to the creation of the U.S. Postal Service, according to Gaetz. Congressmen would use a franking privilege, which allowed them to send mail to their constituents at the government's expense.
Gaetz isn't the only local politician who practices the age-old tradition. State Rep. Mel Ponder said he is proud to participate as well.
"I'm such a firm believer in giving honor where honor is due," Ponder said. "It's a small gesture of a job well done. It's celebrating people for who they are."
Gaetz said his letters are paid for through his Member Representation Account, which allows $1 million to be spent on staff salaries, office supplies, travel, Internet and phones. Ponder said his letters are also paid for with taxpayer money.
"It's set up through the state for things like newsletters," Ponder said.
Gaetz said he and his team will send an average of 100 recognition letters a day to people. Ponder said his staff sends 20 to 50 a week.
Both men said they try to sign all of the letters by hand, with topics ranging from student achievement and local volunteer efforts to recognizing the success of a nonprofit group.
Staffers are responsible for clipping the articles and writing the letters. Ponder said he reads every letter and often edits them to reflect his own thoughts and emotions.
The recipients, they said, are mostly found in the Northwest Florida Daily News and other media sources. Others are occasionally found through social media and television.
Ponder said he even writes letters to pets featured in the Daily News Pet of the Day.
"We get a lot of people who are touched when we write a letter about their pet in Pet of the Day," Ponder said. "Some people have the letters framed, and it's really humbling. We do this to let them know that someone else has seen their success, and it makes them feel good and makes the moment last a little longer."