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Kansas City’s Secret Santa spreads the joy of giving

Elizabeth Bowman, an employee at the Disabled American Veterans Red Racks Thrift Store, hugged Secret Santa after receiving a $100 bill in thanks for the work she does in the thrift store. Secret Santa traveled across Independence on Thursday to spread cheer.
Elizabeth Bowman, an employee at the Disabled American Veterans Red Racks Thrift Store, hugged Secret Santa after receiving a $100 bill in thanks for the work she does in the thrift store. Secret Santa traveled across Independence on Thursday to spread cheer. deulitt@kcstar.com

With only $25 to spend at an Independence thrift store Thursday, Angel Baltimore held two shirts in her hands and tried to decide which one to keep.

But when a man she didn’t know walked up and told her he needed help, Baltimore didn’t hesitate to give him $10.

The tradition in Kansas City began with philanthropist Larry Stewart in 1979 with Stewart handing out $100 bills to random people in need. Stewart's anonymity ended following his death in 2007 but a new anonymous Secret Santa continued Stewart's a

The man smiled, thanked her, then reached into his own pocket and handed a $100 bill back to her.

Angel Baltimore, meet Secret Santa.

“Oh my God, thank you so much,” the Independence woman told him with a big hug and a beaming smile.

For Kansas City’s Secret Santa, seeing those smiles and getting those hugs is a holiday tradition that never gets old.

But meeting someone like Baltimore, willing to reach out to a stranger in need, is what truly brings joy to Santa.

“It’s always the people with the least who give the most,” he said later. “Kindness is the bridge between all people.”

Following the path forged by Larry Stewart, the original Secret Santa who gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars before he died of cancer in 2007, Secret Santa on Thursday hit the streets of Independence with a small band of elves seeking out people who looked like they could use a hand.

He and his elves found them in the aisles of thrift stores, at bus stops and at a social service agency.

One of his elves, Independence police officer Jason Meadors, even pulled over a car on Noland Avenue, but instead of handing Richard Swigert a ticket, Meadors gave him a $100 bill instead. Santa then stepped over to the passenger side of the car and handed his wife, Debbie, another $100.

Although she could use the money, the Sedalia woman said she intends to give it to a charity.

Likewise, Tammy Hickman, overcome with emotion after her Santa encounter, said she would pass on the $100 to a friend who operates a nonprofit.

“That’s the cool part of it, passing if forward,” said one elf, also known as Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp.

That kind of “pay it forward” mindset is what Santa says he seeks to spread by his yearly “sleigh rides,” both locally and in cities across the country.

He’s been doing it for nine years now, personally tapped by Stewart to carry on the Secret Santa tradition.

Thursday’s local ride came the day after Santa spread Christmas joy in a place across the state that could surely use some good cheer — Ferguson, Mo.

But there are plenty of people in the Kansas City area in need too, and Santa found one of them, James Galloway, who is searching for a job and was down to his last $30. He was at the social service agency to pick up a box of food.

“I about had a heart attack,” Galloway said after receiving a bill from Santa. “Getting work has been really hard.”

At another thrift store, Patty Clark of Lone Jack was trying to pick up some bargains. She said she had been praying she would be able to buy Christmas presents for her family.

Then Santa appeared and handed her $100.

“God really does answer prayers,” she said.

Tony Rizzo: 816-234-4435, @trizzkc

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