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Secret Santa spreads cash and holiday joy to those in need

The anonymous benefactor known as Secret Santa dispatched his “elves” on Tuesday to hand out cash to people in the Kansas City area. Vanessa Flowers of Kansas City hugged Steve Decker, one of the elves. The tradition was started by the late Larry Stewart.
The anonymous benefactor known as Secret Santa dispatched his “elves” on Tuesday to hand out cash to people in the Kansas City area. Vanessa Flowers of Kansas City hugged Steve Decker, one of the elves. The tradition was started by the late Larry Stewart. The Kansas City Star

When Jackson County’s sheriff approached her Tuesday inside a Grandview thrift shop, Leonna McGowan explained she was shopping with her grandmother-in-law for a table on which the family could eat Christmas dinner.

“Where is she?” Sheriff Mike Sharp asked.

“What’s wrong?” McGowan wanted to know.

Nothing was wrong. But McGowan didn’t know that — yet.

Sharp soon found Eva Miller, the grandmother-in-law. She had been studying a weathered kitchen table bearing a $50 price tag. Sharp not only handed over a $100 bill stamped with the words “Secret Santa” in red letters, he negotiated with the store manager to lower the table’s price to $30.

“Now my five grandbabies will have a table to eat on,” Miller told Sharp as she smiled and wiped away tears.

Secret Santa had struck again.

Sharp joined Kansas City’s Secret Santa on his third and final local “sleigh ride” for this holiday season. Sharp, along with Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté, who was riding for the first time, made up their own Yuletide flash mob, dispensing $100 bills at several sites across Kansas City and its Jackson County suburbs.

It was the continuation of the holiday tradition begun by the late Larry Stewart, who introduced the practice of distributing street donations during the holidays.

On Tuesday, recipients included:

▪ Gina Lastiee, who was shopping at a south Kansas City thrift store.

“I’m going to take this and go over to Family Dollar to buy Christmas presents and then buy Christmas dinner because there was no money for that before,” she said, tears welling.

Earlier, Secret Santa had explained to his deputies the hierarchy of emotions that routinely register on recipients’ faces. Concern — especially given the uninvited proximity of law enforcement — soon gives way to curiosity before exploding in comfort and joy.

▪ Vanessa Flowers, who was at the same location.

“Thank you, Jesus,” she said. “Maybe I should just put this in my Bible and keep it there.”

▪ Keyona Davis, who was working the cash register at a retail store in the Ruskin Heights district of south Kansas City.

“Yes, I can use this,” Davis told Sharp. “Single mother, two children.”

Davis followed Sharp outside and hugged him on the sidewalk.

“It makes you feel human,” Sharp said, getting back in his patrol car. “Secret Santa has given law enforcement another way of showing that.”

▪ Michelle Ralls, who was shopping at a Prospect Avenue store near 60th Street.

“I’m going to go shopping for my daughter for Christmas,” she said, wiping away tears after Forté had presented her the money.

The chief had been driving north on Prospect Avenue when he saw the mother and daughter climb into their car after leaving the store. He doubled back to the store, hustling out of his driver’s seat and walking across the parking lot, waving the driver down as the car came to a hesitating stop.

“This is my first time doing this. It’s very enjoyable,” Forté said later.

“It’s just a great feeling inside when you approach someone and they are a little leery at first, suspecting your intentions, and then they just open up after they see a $100 bill with ‘Secret Santa’ stamped on it.”

Later, during lunch, Secret Santa led ceremonies, swearing Forté in as a Secret Santa elf. The chief, wearing a regulation red cap with “Elf” printed on it, pledged to “commit random acts of kindness, whenever I get the chance.”

Following Stewart’s 2007 death, the current Secret Santa often has followed his lead and worked with law enforcement during his sleigh rides.

“Law enforcement folks recognize people in need,” he said. “They see them every day.”

Santa further explained that however powerful a crisp $100 bill can be, it wasn’t the money that served as the real medicine.

“The money won’t last,” he said. “But the spirit of the giving will.”

It’s as simple, and effective, as that.

A CBS news video that aired recently featuring Jackson County deputies giving out Santa’s money has gone viral, prompting other law enforcement agencies to try the Secret Santa routine on their own.

This week Sharp took a call from a police chief in Altoona, Wis., asking for tips in the tradition’s protocols and procedures.

“I just said, ‘Hand out money and brace yourself for a hug,’” Sharp said.

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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