by Lindsey Collom The Arizona Republic
A secret Santa came to Phoenix on Monday to spread holiday cheer and about $20,000 in cash to people in need.
The Society of Secret Santas is a group of anonymous leaders throughout the world who perform random acts of kindness to those less fortunate.
The holiday tradition began in 1979 when a Kansas City, Mo., businessman named Larry Stewart started handing out $100 bills after he made his first million dollars. Stewart died in January 2007, but his mission continues.
Stewart's goal was to have a secret Santa in every major U.S. city, something those who carry on his tradition hope to achieve. A Valley businessman joined the ranks this year.
Santa and his elves wound through low-income areas of Phoenix on Monday in search of needy individuals. They made stops at nearly a dozen thrift stores, laundry facilities, dollar stores and a Wal-Mart.
They also stopped at a Greyhound station, where Jose Manuel, Georgina Tejada and their three children waited for a bus to Los Angeles. The family was traveling to a Shriners Hospitals for Children for their youngest child, a 10-month-old boy with a foot deformity.
Manuel and Tejada purchased one-way fares with no plans of how to get home until one of Santa's elves intervened.
"Merry Christmas," the elf said, leaning close to Manuel as he pressed a bill into his arm.
Tejada whooped with joy.
In 1971, Stewart was penniless and hungry when he went to a Mississippi diner and ordered a meal he couldn't cover. When the bill came, Stewart pretended to have lost his wallet. The diner's owner reached under Stewart's stool and appeared to retrieve $20.
"Son," he said, "you must have dropped this."
Stewart vowed that if he was ever in a position to help someone, he would. And he did. It's estimated he gave more than $1.3 million to those who needed a hand.