Secret Santa spreads Christmas cheer with $100 bills

By Bruce Olson

ST. LOUIS (BestGrowthStock) – The Secret Santa Claus of St. Louis had no beard, no pot belly and no reindeer.

She was a diminutive business woman, smartly dressed in a red beret jacket, blue jeans, and a black scarf tight around her neck to fight the icy winds off the Mississippi River.

Escorted by firefighters, she rode through the rough neighborhoods of this hard-pressed city, one of a dozen or so Secret Santas who have given away thousands of dollars in cities across the nation the week before Christmas.

Passing by the Goody Goody Diner, the pay day loan operations and the chain-link empty lots, she suddenly teared up.

“There will never be enough,” she said, wiping her eyes as she spoke with a reporter along for the ride on Wednesday. “It’s so overwhelming to know that there are so many needy people. I know I’ll never be able to give enough to everybody who needs money. That leaves an empty feeling.”

‘THERE’

She sat a moment staring out the window, then turned and pointed: “There!”

We pull over to a bus stop on Natural Bridge Road where a woman holds her little boy in her arms, protecting him from the 30-degree wind.

“Are you all right?” the Secret Santa asked, looking down on Lakeisha Starks, 20, and her 1-year-old son, Calvin. Santa leaned down and handed the woman a $100 bill and said “Merry Christmas.” Starks, still sitting on the cold curb, looked up slowly, a giant grin spreading across her face.

“I was just taking my son to the doctor. Thank you so much.”

“Be kind to someone else,” Santa says. Starks is a community college student, raising her little boy and a 2-year-old daughter on her own.

Back in the van, Santa’s tears are gone. “Now that’s a story,” she says. “That’s what makes doing this worth it.”

GIVING AWAY $5,000

For four hours, it goes like that, in thrift stores, laundromats, the downtown Goodwill outlet, all around the north side of the city. About $5,000 is given out in all.

This nationwide effort to help people with anonymous cash at Christmas was the idea of the original Secret Santa Larry Stewart, who gave away more than $1.5 million over 26 years before dying of cancer in 2007. Before his death he formed the Society of Secret Santas to pass out money around the country.

The St. Louis Secret Santa said she met Stewart shortly before he died. “He had the most beautiful, genteel eyes,” she said. “He was this amazing person who planted a seed that has spread over the United States.”

Such Santas have appeared this season in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., where the Salvation Army received 55 $100 bills; and in Cleveland where 10 of the Franklins were found in a red kettle; in Kansas City, where $10,000 was handed out in low income neighborhoods; and in Detroit, where each of 20 or so bus passengers got $100.

In Phoenix, crisp bills made their way into needy hands at the Greyhound station. In Des Moines, Iowa, college students and thrift store shoppers got the cash. In Oklahoma City, a man in a wheelchair couldn’t believe it when Santa gave him $100. In Sebago, Maine, a donor handed out $100 bills at The Warming Hut food pantry and later gave away cash in nearby South Portland.

The biggest donors were in Flint, Mich., where $100,000 was given to buy toys for needy kids and in Joplin, Mo., where five $20,000 cashier’s checks turned up folded neatly inside $1 bills dropped in the donation kettle. On each check the remitter’s name: Santa Claus.

‘YOU CAN’T JUDGE’

The St. Louis Secret Santa said all her fellow Santas were people who “get it,” wealthy people with compassion and a nonjudgmental attitude.

“You can’t judge the people you are giving money to,” she said. “If they spend the money on liquor, that’s what they need to do.”

Among the lucky recipients of Secret Santa’s cash in St. Louis were Karen Weisburg, 38, who said she would buy presents for her three kids. There was Jessica Field, 18, a recent arrival from Texas who said she’d get a winter coat.

Angela Jenkins, 36, jumped up and down in the middle of the Goodwill, hugging her co-workers and doing a little dance. She said she was so broke she hadn’t been able to put gas in her car.

And there was Joshua Isreal, a 45-year-old putting air in the tire of his bicycle. He shouted “God bless you” several times to the Secret Santa before he was asked what he was going to do with the money.

“Save and invest,” he answered firmly. “Save and invest. But first I better get some change so I can do my laundry.”

(Editing by Greg McCune)

Secret Santa spreads Christmas cheer with $100 bills