Secret Santa strikes early, sparks tears in Olathe

When he heard loud police sirens shrieking near his Olathe apartment Friday night, Sherman LeJeune figured it meant someone was in trouble.

The father of three peeked outside. Multiple law enforcement officers swarmed his complex’s lawn. But instead of waving weapons in the nighttime darkness, they carried coloring books, large candy canes — and smiles.

Some even wore red hats.

“It looked like the Christmas spirit,” LeJeune said as he wiped a tear away moments after officers gave him several $100 bills. “This is a blessing.”

Secret Santa and his elves had just struck.

Santa appeared a little early this year, to hand out some Thanksgiving cheer along with his usual random acts of kindness and hearty Merry Christmas wishes.

He deputized a large contingent of law enforcement personnel to serve as his ELFs — or Ever Lasting Friends, a twist on the word “elves” that Kansas City’s original Secret Santa, Larry Stewart, coined many years ago.

Stewart, who died of cancer in January 2007, trained the new Secret Santa, who has carried on the tradition in the Kansas City area and across the country for nearly a decade now.

He recently heard about the Salvation Army’s Johnson County Family Lodge, a row of 14 apartments for homeless families working to regain their own places. Figuring it teemed with worthy “targets,” Santa enlisted help setting up the Friday night visit. The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office got in on the act early, calling the Salvation Army headquarters Friday morning and asking one of the directors to come to the Sheriff’s Office.

“It’s for a good thing,” the caller told the Salvation Army’s Lt. Heidi Strand, who soon agreed to keep the surprise secret from the residents while helping guide the officers to their doors that night.

At little after 7 p.m., an excited Strand shuffled her feet trying to stay warm on the sidewalk as the sirens approached. Car after car spun into the Salvation Army’s parking lot, lights flashing, sirens blaring. Here came Olathe police, the Kansas Highway Patrol, the Johnson County sheriff, the Bonner Springs police chief — even some Missouri Highway Patrol troopers and a retired FBI special agent. And Santa, of course.

Like LeJeune, most of the residents figured someone was in trouble.

When she heard a knock at her door, Michele Stewart thought someone was hurt and needed help.

“Then I saw you guys,” she said, her eyes wide with surprise.

Santa handed her money before initiating a group hug.

“Now do something kind for somebody else,” he told Stewart, who couldn’t believe the timing. Her three children had just been asking her about Christmas “stuff,” she said.

In a nearby apartment, an elf handed $400 to Rosandria Lewis, a mother of 3- and 5-year-olds. A tear rolled down her right cheek.

“This means I can do something for my kids,” she said. “It’s amazing. I didn’t have no money to do nothing for them, so it came at a good time.”

At LeJeune’s apartment, Santa spoke briefly before motioning Capt. Scott Shipers of the Missouri Highway Patrol to take over.

“We came tonight to spread a little holiday cheer and let you know that we all care about you,” Shipers said. “There’s hope out there.”

LeJeune’s voice cracked as he tried to respond. He paused and swallowed hard.

“Thank you.”

With some money left in his pocket, Santa herded his elves to their vehicles. They soon found a thrift store and later a budget grocery store. Inside each, the elves spread out, combing aisles and striking up conversations before reaching into their pockets for Secret Santa money.

“This blows me away,” Levi Jamescupp said after Sgt. Bill Lowe of the Missouri Highway Patrol gave his family $100 in the thrift store.

At the grocery store, Kansas Trooper Tiffany Bush asked a shopper if she had heard of Secret Santa.

“Yes,” the woman said, “but I don’t have money to help anyone out.”

“Here,” Bush said. “Now you do.”

The woman’s touching reaction melted Bush, whose eyes turned moist and red. It’s nice, she said later, to let people see law enforcement officers in a positive light.

Near the store’s produce section, Bonner Springs Police Chief Mark Zaretski capped the night by saying hello to shopper Rachel Nunez. He liked her kind face.

As he handed over $100, he announced: “That’s for you but it comes with a catch — for you to share random acts of kindness throughout this holiday season and throughout the year. Can you do that?”

“Absolutely,” Nunez said. She gazed into Zaretski’s eyes.

“What happens if I give it away?” she asked. “I have a homeless friend. She has two little kids.”

Zaretski had just told Nunez the story of Secret Santa. She’d proven to be a quick learner.

“I love the story,” she said. “How Secret Santa started, and the story of him being down on his luck. He wants people to give it forward and show the world … what giving is all about — helping others.”

Zaretski grinned.

“You have a happy holiday season,” he told Nunez.

“I will now,” she said.

Donna McGuire: 816-234-4393, @dmcguirekcstar