Secret Santa Society Spreads Money, Cheer

PHOTO: A woman hugs a Secret Santa after getting a $100 dollar bill from the wealthy philanthropist from Kansas City, Mo. while looking for clothes at the Salvation Army store in Staten Island, New York, Nov. 29, 2012.
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Members of the Society of Secret Santas participate in holiday "sleigh rides," but they don't get involved with reindeer or trips through the sky. Their sleigh rides consist of traveling to places around the country to hand out $100 bills to people in need.

The head Secret Santa, known only as Elf 32A, recently went to the Topeka, Kans., area, where two police officers were killed last week. He quietly distributed $100 bills to law enforcement people and the families of others who have been injured or killed.

"It's amazing how much little things like that take people by surprise in a pleasant sort of way," society spokesman Pat O'Neill told ABCNews.com.

The society is based in Kansas City, Mo., where Elf 32A is an anonymous "local businessman, very low key," according to O'Neill.

The group was founded by Larry Dean Stewart, the "original Secret Santa" who died in 2007. O'Neill estimates that Stewart donated about $1.5 million over his 20 years going on sleigh rides. His identity was only revealed after his death.

Elf 32A, a friend of Stewart's, took over the group when he died.

The number of members of the society ebbs and flows year to year, depending on people's financial and personal situations. The informal group consists of "dozens" of good Samaritans each year. Stewart said the primary Secret Santas hand out between $10,000 and $50,000.

The head Secret Santa trains members on how to move quickly through crowds in order to avoid being photographed and how to read people's facial expressions, looking for sadness or stress.

After superstorm Sandy, Elf 32A traveled to New York and New Jersey to distribute $100,000 to people who suffered from the storm. He sported a red cap with the word "Elf" stitched in the back. He allowed some press on the outing, but they were prohibited from photographing or videotaping his face.

"Are you serious?" asked one surprised shopper when he handed her a $100 bill.

"I'm serious. Merry Christmas," he said. "See if you can't do a little bit more shopping today. Buy something a little bit more than what you would have bought before, alright? Just kind of pass the kindness on down the road."

The woman hugged the generous benefactor and cried into his shoulder.

"The money is not the point at all," he told the AP during a stop in Staten Island. "It's about the random acts of kindness. I'm just setting an example, and if 10 percent of the people who see me emulate what I'm doing, anybody can be a secret Santa."

The $100 bills are stamped with "Larry Stewart, Secret Santa" in honor of the group's founder and they come with a note that asks recipients to "pass the kindness on to somebody."

The society says they're not just about the money.

"There's a million different acts of kindness that can take on any shape, size or form," O'Neill said. "We're just trying to remind folks of their humanity and that any random act of kindness is appreciated."

The note also includes a phone number that recipients can call if they want to share their story with the group.

On a recent trip to Elizabeth, N.J., Secret Santa was crossing from a church to a food pantry when he ran into three or four men in their 50s volunteering while they waited for assistance from the charity. He handed each of the men a $100 bill with the note and phone number.

Later on, the society would hear a phone message from one of the men in the group who said, "I want to tell you I think you accidentally gave me two [bills] and I hope it's O.K., but I gave $50 to a man who wasn't around when you handed out the money and the other $50 to a homeless guy."

"It's always the people who have the least who give the most," O'Neill said. "It comes back to you, just like they say. It feels good."

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