Mabel Foster was 87 and lonely. Having outlived relatives and friends her final days were endless ones spent in the confines of a nursing home.

But she could still write, and in December 1981 she penned a poignant letter from a nursing facility in Waynesboro to the editor of Georgia's widely-read Farmers and Consumers Market Bulletin, an agricultural newsletter.She was disabled and had no family to spend Christmas with, she wrote in a shaky scrawl. Would the Bulletin ask its readers to send her Christmas cards and letters?

Valera Jessee, then editor of the Bulletin, ran Foster's plea in the Letters to the Editor column on Dec. 16, 1981, never expecting what the results would be.

"Lo and behold, we heard back from her (Foster) that she got 4,000 responses from that little note," said current Bulletin Editor Toby Moore, recalling the beginning of one of the Bulletin's most popular features - its Special People List which runs every December several weeks before Christmas.

The Special People List, the direct outgrowth of Mabel Foster's letter, consists of about two pages of names and addresses of the elderly and the shut-ins across the state who would like to receive cards and letters from Bulletin readers during the holidays. It has become one of the most popular of all the paper's services, said Moore.

Jessee, now in public relations, said Foster died about six months after that Christmas of 1981. "That was her last Christmas," she said. Jessee received a letter from the director of the Waynesboro Facility Home that said, "I want to thank you for giving her the happiest Christmas she ever had."

This year the weekly Bulletin, as it has done for the past eight years, published in its Dec. 7 edition the names and addresses of 321 elderly and disabled people who want to be remembered at Christmas. More names and addresses were planned for the Dec. 14 edition, Moore said.

"It's very popular," Moore said of the Special People List. "People start sending names in by early October." Many of the requests come from people who want the names of elderly relatives or friends on the list.

"But it's amazing that some of the people write in themselves, saying such things as `I'm homebound. Please put my name on your Special People List so I can receive cards and letters during Christmas."

Moore said church groups have adopted the Special People List as a Christmas project and watch for its appearance in the Bulletin. "I had a call from a lady the other day. She wanted to send Christmas cards to everyone on the list.

"I understand a lot of times teachers will have their classes send cards to people on the list. It has become one of the most popular features of the Market Bulletin.

"It is also one of the most fulfilling things that I do. A lot of times you feel removed from the people, sitting up here in this big building in Atlanta."

Moore has a box of letters from Bulletin readers across the state. "Thank you for doing this. It is a special part of our Christmas," said one letter writer from Rome.

Another said "please enter my mother's name on the Special People List. She is 96 years old and enjoys Christmas cards from the nice people out there. It is a wonderful thing that you do. Thank you and may God bless you. Merry Christmas. I'm sorry but my mother can't write. She didn't get to go to school."