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Secret Santas spread joy, $100 at a time

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They see firsthand how far a $100 bill can go.

On Thursday, two couples spent the day handing the bills with “Secret Santa” stamped on them in red ink to strangers. Part of a national effort started decades ago by Kansas City, Mo., businessman Larry Stewart, they give money to people they’ve never met with hopes it will inspire them to perform their own random acts of kindness.

All four benefactors want to remain anonymous: One couple has been doing this annually for seven years, the second couple was participating for the first time. Decked in red berets with the word “Elf” embroidered in yellow stitching, the group introduced themselves to strangers as “Santa’s helpers” or just “elves.”

Accompanied by a group of Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers – many of whom have been riding along for several seasons of holiday giving – the group made stops all over Charlotte: a Goodwill Store; the Salvation Army Center of Hope on Spring Street; Walter G. Byers School and others. They surprised pedestrians with cash along their way.

The group stopped by the Neet’s Sweets and Second Helping storefront on Central Avenue and learned more about the two social businesses. Antonia Childs, executive director of Neet’s Sweets, said for the past five years the bakery has helped teach girls work skills to keep them from a life of sexual exploitation, as well as support female survivors of human trafficking.

Childs’ eyes welled up when one of the elves pressed several $100 bills into her hand. “Is this a prank,” she asked, before giving each of them a hug.

Childs called Monique Maddox, manager of Second Helpings, from the back of the store to explain what the business does, in addition to catering and running a takeout cafe.

“We employ women coming from incarceration, usually from the federal system,” Maddox said, adding the employment and work experience help provide them a second chance. Maddox was visibly surprised when the red-hat-clad group handed her cash. After another round of hugs, Maddox and Childs both said they plan to reinvest the unexpected windfalls back into their operations.

“I’ve been in a stretch trying to make payroll, so I’ll donate this back into the business,” Maddox said.

At Walter G. Byers, the group surprised cafeteria manager Arry McCauley and seven members of her staff. When they handed Angela Smith “something to make your holidays more joyful” she threw her arms in the air and said “Thank you, Jesus.”

The veteran elves estimate they hand out tens of thousands of dollars each holiday season, something they look forward to all year. They said the CMPD presence helps lend credibility to what they’re doing, as many can’t believe a stranger would give them money and ask nothing in return.

CMPD Sgt. Charles Rappleyea said it’s the unfiltered joy he sees from the recipients that makes the annual trip around Charlotte stand out from his daily assignments, adding it’s not uncommon to see people in tears. “Everybody is so grateful and so happy.”

Margie Anderson and William Montgomery were trying to stay dry by sitting on the stoop of a building on Moretz Avenue when they were approached by the group of elves. Anderson said she would use the money to buy food and other necessities. “It came right on time.”

Montgomery said the money was a blessing and “the nicest thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Around the corner on Lucena Street, Sandy Edwards was walking back to work at lunchtime when she was stopped by the elves. In tears, she said she’s thankful to have a job and the unexpected kindness made her want to help others.

“God is just so good. … This will bless me and help me bless someone else.”

Trenda: 704-358-5089; Twitter: @htrenda
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