Sunday, December 16, 2007

Good in America: A New Secret Santa and Others Carry On Larry Stewarts Legacy Of Giving

Giving money away to strangers on the street — how tough can that be? You walk up to someone and say, “Hey, how ya doing? Here’s a $100 bill.” Nope, not that easy, said the Kansas City man as he shook his head. He’s set to hit those streets this week in new white painter’s pants filled with cold cash — and he’s feeling the pressure to live up to the legend of Secret Santa.The job came to him on a cold winter night just after Christmas last year, when he made a promise to a dying man. He sat by Larry Stewart’s hospital bed and listened to Stewart, the original Secret Santa, talk about the joy he got from giving money to needy strangers and their pledge to him that they would pass along the goodwill to someone else. The light was low, but the man could see Stewart smile when he spoke of how much he would miss those yearly “sleigh rides.” Then, to his own surprise, the man took Stewart’s hand and told him that he and others would carry on the legend of Secret Santa. He said he would stamp Stewart’s name on $100 bills and give them to those in need from coast to coast. Stewart didn’t say anything. He just squeezed his friend’s hand. Stewart died about a week later, this past January. It proves one thing - There really is a Santa Claus!

For obvious reasons, the new Secret Santa’s name will not be used in this story. Anonymity was key to Stewart’s belief that the greatest gifts are those given without recognition. But we will talk about "Secret Santa", Larry Stewart. Stewart had grown up in poverty in a small town in Mississippi. Later, as a young adult and after losing a job, he lived in his car. Then came the day that planted the seed of Secret Santa. Hungry but broke, Stewart went into a restaurant and ordered a big breakfast. His plan was that when the check came he would claim he couldn’t find his wallet. The owner came from behind the counter and bent to the floor near Stewart’s feet. “You must have dropped this,” he said, handing Stewart a $20 bill. Stewart vowed that day that he would help others whenever he could. He made his way to Kansas City and eventually made a lot of money in business. Over the years he has given away $1.3 million. He says he has been amply rewarded in return.

When Larry Stewart walked in the Dixie Diner and came face to face with one of His Angels. As he was leaving town he said a prayer of thanks and vowed to God that if He ever put him in the position to help others he would do it, and in a way that would allow people to keep their dignity. He never forget that day, nor did he ever forget his Angel, Ted Horn. Think about it. It alll began with a single act of kindness by a man named Ted Horn, the owner of the Dixie Diner in Houston, Mississippi. He changed many a man's life forever. Remember the movie "Pay It Forward?" It's kind of like that!

Paul Schernberg has been homeless for the past year, flopping in cheap motels or walking the streets at night to save money. Each week, from his job as a waiter, he squirreled away as much as he could - usually about $3 - to someday get an apartment. Schernberg was $103 from that goal when he walked into a Phoenix thrift store on Tuesday to buy his sister a Christmas present. He left with $200, thanks to a Secret Santa he had never met before and would never see again. "Oh, my God, I'm going to be in a home," Schernberg said. "This means Christmas again. I hadn't thought of Christmas for a long time." That's what Christmas is all about!

A few years ago, a Missouri woman sent a message to Stewart's Secret Santa e-mail address, something she had seen in news reports about him. She suspected him of doing her a good turn and thanked him for saving her life. The woman wrote: "I don't think I have ever known someone so unselfish and kind. It gives me hope that maybe people are not as bad as I thought." She told him about one Christmas season when she had fled her abusive husband and taken refuge with her children in a homeless shelter. She said she was so depressed, she was planning to kill herself. One day when she returned to the shelter after being out, she found $1,000 had been left in her room. That money helped her get back on her feet, and she has since happily remarried.

Larry Stewart, Tom Horn and many others show by example that a single act of kindness could change a persons life for a day or maybe even for a lifetime. This would be a much nicer world to live in if there were more people like these guys. Maybe in rememberance of this Secret Santa some of us could save a little back to give to someone this coming Christmas, and tell them about Larry Stewart and Tom Horn so that their memory will live on for many generations to come. That’s what we’re here help other people out.

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