Teresa Moreno was watching television from her faded green couch when Santa came calling wearing blue jeans and a bright smile.
Moreno, 81, couldn't believe her eyes. She was among those getting unexpected help at Christmastime, just as she had seen so many times on TV.
"Oh, my goodness, oh, my Lord, thank you, Lord," she repeated, burying her face into her wrinkled hands, happy, bewildered and embarrassed over the sudden spotlight.
The Phoenix resident, who raised five kids, still supports a daughter and two grandchildren, one with Down syndrome, on her fixed income. She's the kind of person who tries to get presents for her babies for Christmas from the dollar store even when her air-conditioning is out just to see the smiles on their faces.
As she wiped away tears, so did her Secret Santa, who is part of a group of Valley residents who share their good fortune with others.
They are part of a national movement of anonymous donors who fan out in their communities to spread the message that people still care.
"You're going to make me cry," said one of Moreno's anonymous Santas.
Another sat on a nearby couch, tears welling, as he handed out $100 bills for each family member -- $600 total once the family dog was included.
Such emotions are worth the effort for Peoria residents Steve Chenoweth and Larry McCormick, who organized the Secret Santas as part of secretsantaworld.net.
Chenoweth and McCormick, retired FBI agents, were inspired by their friend Larry Stewart, a Kansas philanthropist who for 20 years randomly handed out $100 bills at Christmas. Stewart, who was once homeless but became wealthy as a telecommunications entrepreneur, never forgot one act of kindness when someone slipped him a $20 bill to pay for a meal he couldn't afford.
"We want to continue his legacy," McCormick said.
The pair have been organizing the Valley's Secret Santas for six years.
Stewart-inspired Secret Santa "sleigh rides" now happen across the country. Donors remain anonymous. They want the recipient to get all the attention.
Here in the Valley, the two-day sleigh ride in a white Chevy van gifted about $30,000 to about 80 people last week.
A Glendale police cruiser followed the van to provide security and to ensure traffic flowed smoothly during the random stops.
A surprised Nicole Williamson was walking her son, Jadyn, 8, home from school when the Secret Santas rolled up and gave her $200. She took home the message of helping others, especially in these difficult times.
"Hope sometimes dwindles," she said. "(But) there are still good people out there who are spreading the love of God."
Williamson said some of the money would go toward toys for her son and the rest would go to help someone else she knows who is in need.
Chenoweth said organizing this year's event was all worth it to see the happiness on the face of a Glendale Walmart shopper, who was approached by the Secret Santas and given $1,000. The man's sister had recently died and he was taking care of her three children on top of his four. He was struggling to make a meaningful Christmas.
Chenoweth said others tell the Secret Santas they don't need the money but ask if they can use it to help others.
"It's fantastic to see that sense of giving come alive," he said.
The small brigade of Secret Santas don't just hand out the money. They share Stewart's story to keep his spirit alive.
On Thursday, the Secret Santas made a stop at the Children First Academy in Phoenix to hand out candy canes, crayons and coloring books that told Stewart's story.
Santa and an elf read aloud from one of the coloring books and then asked the children if they would do anything nice for others.
"Yeah," about 35 third- and-fourth-graders replied in unison.
Read more: http://www.azcentral.com/community/phoenix/articles/2011/12/20/20111220peoria-secret-santas-spread-caring-message.html#ixzz1hEs6FOrl
"Secret Santas" are finding creative ways to spread Christmas cheer throughout Great Falls this season.
An anonymous couple decided not to shower themselves with gifts for the holidays, and instead scoped out the aisles of Vans IGA to share the Christmas spirit with some unsuspecting shoppers, leading to a surprise at checkout.
Store manager Troy Siron said, "So when they came through, I was just asked to say, 'These are from Santa.'"
"Santa" bought the groceries for an older gentleman and a family of four.
Siron noted, "The kids were talking about Santa in the store and the 'Secret Santa' caught on to that, and thought it was a great opportunity for them to realize that maybe Santa is still there."
But that wasn't the only "Secret Santa" in Great Falls.
The Great Falls Rescue Mission had their own anonymous donor on Wednesday afternoon, delivering Subway sandwiches and chips to nearly 80 people, brightening the spirits of those in need.
Rescue Mission client Michelle said, "It's so good to know that people actually do care and actually do give during this kind of season."
Another client said, "I think it shows they have appreciation for what's in their lives...when they do something like that it reminds you they're a person and it's going to be okay, it's going to get better and somebody cares."
Even at KMart you can find a Secret Santa
|Santa Claus is usually quite visible with his white and red suit, but a growing number of "Secret Santas" are spreading cheer from behind the scenes.Kmart has had its Secret Santa program for years, said , assistant manager for the store at 1003 W. Patrick St. in Frederick.|
Secret Santas, who remain anonymous, pay off the layaway costs for those who are considered to have jobs that provide only a low income, Jones said Sunday.
"I've been in management here nine years, and we had one or two each year," he said of Secret Santas. "This year we had 16 or 17 in just the past few days. The need is really there and people are helping out."
Jones said Kmart personnel help choose layaways that have a lot of toys or where payments are late.
"It really is for the kids," Jones said. "We have had Secret Santas come in and pay off as much as $300 on a layaway."
Frederick resident Margaret Murray saw reports of the outpouring of generosity toward strangers, and she thought it was a great idea and decided to participate. When she arrived at Kmart on West Patrick Street in Frederick on Saturday, she soon discovered other people had the same idea.
A couple in front of her at the Kmart layaway desk came to pay strangers' layaways, Murray said. The cashier said people had been coming in all day offering to pay peoples' balances.
"The lady at the counter had a stack of receipts from people who had paid off other people's layaway," Murray said. "It was a great feeling to see it wasn't just me."
Murray said she usually donates to charity. "But in this case, people who put things in layaway generally need a little help," she said.
Murray's $350 donation paid for several layaway orders with different balances, she said. Her donation went toward layaways with children's toys, and games.
Within the half hour Murray was in the store, three people came to replicate the act, she said.
The beneficiaries are often overwhelmed. "The reactions are wonderful to see. It definitely helps them," Jones said of the recipients.
"We staple the receipt to the items, and they can see that the layaway has been paid down to the penny," Jones said.
Secret Santas can visit Kmart through , Jones said.
"With all the bad news we see, it is great to see something good happening," Jones said.