Carla Walker was leaving the Greyhound bus station Friday morning, weighed down by luggage and the knowledge that it would be 18 days until her next paycheck. She was between jobs and had no money for anything other than bus fare when the two strangers with red berets approached.
They handed her a crisp $100 bill, stamped with the words: “Secret Santa.” It took a second or two for it to sink in.
Then Walker threw her head back and smiled.
“Right now, I have no money,” she said, between bursts of laughter. “Wow! Oh my God! Thank you!”
Moments like that one were repeated again and again Friday, as four anonymous “elves” drove through Charlotte with a police escort, spreading $100 bills and unbridled joy. They gave away tens of thousands of dollars to injured veterans, to people at bus stops, to nonprofit leaders and to people down on their luck.
The red-hatted donors – Charlotte-area residents who asked to remain anonymous – call their random acts of generosity “reverse muggings.”
“We’re not going to solve anyone’s homelessness today,” said one of the donors. “But it’s a relief valve. When you see the joy after you’ve handed them a $100 bill, you know they deserve it more than we do.”
On Gossett Avenue, in northwest Charlotte, Preston Applewhite was getting a hand from a couple of friends who were trying to help him fix his 1993 Buick Roadmaster. Applewhite, 33, had lost his job at a pizza restaurant a few weeks earlier, and he needed to get his car running again so he could find another job. He and his girlfriend needed money to buy their four children Christmas presents.
His neighborhood is often rocked by crime. So when Applewhite saw police officers and strangers approach, he thought they were going to ask him about “something bad.”
As the elves gave him and his buddies their gifts, Applewhite gaped.
“People don’t just walk up in this neighborhood and give you $100,” he said later. “I wanted to know the catch.”
“You all are just going to give us $100?” he asked the elves.
The answer was yes. Applewhite hugged his benefactors. “God bless you!” he said.
A frown becomes a smile
The two couples who serve as Charlotte’s Secret Santas are adamant that they remain anonymous, believing publicity would spoil what they do.
The program is a continuation of the Secret Santa effort started decades ago by the late Kansas City, Mo., businessman Larry Stewart. He remembered the time when he was short on money, and a stranger paid for a much-needed meal. And he vowed to spread that spirit.
Stewart went on to become a millionaire, and for nearly 30 years, he gave $100 bills to strangers across the country during the holidays, often dressed as Santa. His desire to help others sparked the formation of The Society of Secret Santas, who continue the act of anonymous giving worldwide.
When Stewart died, an acquaintance took over the Kansas City effort, and it’s that guy who approached a Charlotte philanthropist about launching a program here.
That was 10 years ago. Today, the elves continue to look forward year-round to their magical December moments.
Like the one they shared with Angelina Villalobos.
Villalobos was standing by an overpass on Rozelles Ferry Road, holding Sissy, her Yorkshire Terrier, in a totebag. She was looking disconsolate.
After the elves handed her $100, she began crying.
“Thank you so much,” she said. “Thank you and God bless you!”
As the elves drove away, they could see Villalobos’ expression had changed. She was smiling.
Asked what they would do with their early Christmas presents, a number of Friday’s recipients talked about giving back.
Dominic Gabriel was among them. He was cutting a man’s hair at the Legendary Cuts barber shop on Rozzelles Ferry Road when the Secret Santas came in bearing gifts.
“What?! Thank you!” he said. “My heart stopped beating there for a minute.”
His plan for the money?
“I got to pay it forward,” he said. “I’m going to give a couple of free haircuts today.”
The Empty Stocking Fund
The Charlotte Observer has sponsored the Empty Stocking Fund since about 1920. In recent years, Observer readers have contributed an average of nearly $370,000 annually to buy needy children gifts for Christmas. All money contributed goes to the Salvation Army's Christmas Bureau, which buys toys, food, clothing and gift cards for families.
To qualify, a recipient must submit verification of income, address and other information that demonstrates need. For five days in mid-December, up to 3,000 volunteers help distribute the gifts to families at a vacant department store. The name of every person who contributes to the Empty Stocking Fund will be published on this page daily. If the contributor gives in someone’s memory or honor, we’ll print that person’s name, too. Contributors can remain anonymous.
To donate online: www.charlotteobserver.com/living/helping-others/empty-stocking-fund. Send checks to: The Empty Stocking Fund, P.O. Box 37269, Charlotte, NC 28237-7269. Questions about your donation: 704-358-5520. For helping families: 704-714-4725.