Santa Claus can't bring children what they want most. I learned that by visiting House of Hope in Orlando, Fla., and talking to 16 young ladies whose lives up until recently would provide plots for Charles Dickens novels.

House of Hope is a miracle created by a retired schoolteacher, Sara Trollinger. It's a home for girls who would otherwise be on the street, in an institution or dead.Actually, I'm reluctant to visit House of Hope because I'm supposed to be a hard case. You know, the guy who can eat a hamburger at an autopsy. But I visit Sara and see what good work really decent people have done, and my eyes get watery and I spend a lot of time looking away and mumbling instead of acting like a normal guy.

Anyway, I thought I had a brilliant idea. I would go there and ask the girls to tell me about their worst and their best Christmases. I figured I would get a lot of I-remember-when-I-got-a-whatever and I would relate all of these stories.

Didn't work.

Instead of a good pitch for buying Christmas presents I got a good insight. Georgie, Alysia, Sheryl, Lee Ann, Danielle, Genaia, Tarra, Alesia, April, Tracy, Kitty, Contessa, Crystal, Sonja, Kelly and Chris all had one thing in common. Their best Christmas, if they had one at all, was when their family was together. Sometimes it was an adopted family. But every girl mentioned family, and whether the family was there or not was what made it a good or terrible Christmas.

Sheryl, now 15, remembers the Christmas her stepdad left and took everything. "We really didn't have anything to eat. I still remember Mamma standing in a long line in the rain to get us a toy." Her best Christmas? Last year at House of Hope, the first time she said she really experienced a Christmas, the first one with a Christmas tree.

Lee Ann, 15, remembers the Christmas her father left the family when she was 7 years old. "We got nothing, there was nothing. I felt lonely and left out and I still remember that. My best Christmas was the year before that, when I was 6, when the whole family was together."

Genaia's worst Christmas was the year her mother was strung out on the drugs and there was no tree or anything. She didn't see a Christmas she cares to remember until she came to House of Hope.

Tarra, 14, suffered a pair of real downers. One year her brother died two weeks before Christmas. The next year on Christmas Day her mother was badly injured in an auto accident. Her best Christmas? When the whole family was together.

Crystal, 15, got out of the psychiatric crisis unit last Christmas Eve after attempting suicide. Three presents were waiting for her - two cans of hair spray and a poster full of rules.

Chris, 18, lost her father to suicide and her mother to an horse-riding accident. Her best Christmas? When the family was together.

"I never liked Christmas," Georgie said. "It was a time of tension and I never had anything or anything to look forward to. I use to feel jealous of other kids who had decent families and people who cared about them. I lived in 13 separate foster homes."

After 17 years, Georgie finally had a good Christmas - last year at House of Hope. "I had a family - at least people who cared about me and tons and tons of presents and this year, I hope to see my real mother who gave me up for adoption when I was 21/2.

All the stories are similar. So you see, neither you nor I nor the mighty government with all its resources can give children what they want most for Christmas - a family who cares about them.