KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Secret Santa II hit the streets this week in a long-standing Kansas City tradition of handing out $100 bills — sometimes several at a time — to unsuspecting strangers in thrift stores, food pantries and shelters.
Some people gasped in surprise. Some wanted to know if the $100 bill the tall man in the red cap offered was fake. Others wept.
Secret Santa II has seen a lot of reactions since taking over where his mentor, Kansas City's original Secret Santa, Larry Stewart, left off when he died in 2007 at age 58.
Like Stewart, who gave away more than $1 million to strangers each December in mostly $100 bills, this Secret Santa prefers to stay anonymous.
A fake white beard taped to his face, Secret Santa II handed out about $10,000 in total on Tuesday. Recipients included a police officer with terminal cancer, a homeless man pushing a rickety old shopping cart, an 81-year-old woman who had recently told her 27 grandchildren she wouldn't be able to afford any Christmas gifts, and Bernadette Turner, a 32-year-old unemployed mother of two.
"It's hard to come by," Turner said looking in disbelief at the $200 Secret Santa had given her.
Then one of Santa's "elves" — another tall man in a red cap — sidled up to Turner, asked a few questions, and handed her an additional $100. Turner, whose children are 3 and 8, was overcome.
"I can only afford one gift for each child. But now... "she said, wiping tears from her cheeks and reaching out for a hug.
"Do you believe in Santa Claus?" Capt. Ray Wynn of the Kansas City, Mo., Fire Department, asked from a few feet away. Wynn had followed Stewart on many "sleigh rides" around the country and now follows this Secret Santa, providing stories, memories and amusing sound effects.
"I do now," Turner said. "I do now."
Secret Santa II took over from Stewart about the time the recession hit and the economy went into a tailspin. Like Stewart, this Secret Santa doesn't talk about his own finances, where those $100 bills come from and if — like for so many people now — they've been harder to come by.
Come December, he just fills his pockets with money, dons his red cap and heads out looking for people to make really happy.
He will likely hand out about $40,000 this December. He says he'll go "till the money runs out."
"The recession, unemployment. This is the time you don't want to stop. You don't want to back off," he said.
He walked up to Peggy Potter, 59, of Kansas City, Kan., who was looking at some framed prints at a thrift store. He made some small talk, put his arm around her and within minutes she was crying. Her son died about a year and a half ago. Her husband died in July and her daughter died soon after that.
"I'm just... today's been a rough day for me, just thinking about my loved ones," she said. "I've been having a hard time paying for all the funerals."
Santa gave her $200, listened more, hugged her, and told her the poster she was holding had special meaning. It was a photo of two hands, one large, one small. Words printed at the bottom could have been written by Secret Santa, the original or the current one.
It said: "Kindness in giving creates love."