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Secret Santas spread joy, one $100 bill at a time

Shakira Henderson receives money from a Secret Santa on Remount Road as CMPD Sergeant Charles Rappleyea entertains her one year old daughter Zyerra, Tuesday, December 01, 2015.
Shakira Henderson receives money from a Secret Santa on Remount Road as CMPD Sergeant Charles Rappleyea entertains her one year old daughter Zyerra, Tuesday, December 01, 2015. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Shakira Henderson grabbed her 1-year-old daughter and considered running when a white van stopped behind her on Remount Road and a group of people in red berets jumped out and surrounded her.

“Drug dealers,” she remembers thinking. “This is going to get messy.”

To the contrary, what followed was “a reverse drive-by” as Charlotte’s not-so-notorious Secret Santas call it.

Instead of harassment, a stunned Henderson, 21, was smothered with kindness, handed a crisp new $100 bill and hugged. Then, the strangers in red berets hopped back in the van and drove away, with a police escort.

“I was so scared,” said Henderson, who is currently raising 10 younger brothers and sisters after the death of their mother. “It’s my first $100 bill, the first I’ve ever seen. And here I am, holding a baby that has only one pair of shoes. We’re getting on the bus right now and going to get new shoes and some Pampers.”

Such moments were repeated 200 times Tuesday, as two area couples carried on a Secret Santa tradition that launched in Charlotte nine years ago. Each year, during the first week of December, the couples join with police to comb low-income areas in search of struggling people, and they hand them all $100 bills.

That’s $20,000 given away in a single day, all of it donated by the givers themselves.

On Tuesday, their stops included nonprofits such as Charlotte Bridge Home, the Salvation Army thrift store, the YWCA’s Families Together housing program and a 24-hour prayer center at Caldwell Presbyterian Church.

Most of the recipients hugged their benefactors, all laughed, a few cried. And there’s usually at least one who refuses to stop walking, believing they’re in trouble. That happened Tuesday, twice.

Among those who laughed and cried was Javan Kirkpatrick, a 72-year-old Army vet spotted walking through Southside Homes off South Tryon Street. Kirkpatrick, who served 18 years, said he was soon to be hospitalized for a hernia.

“I was down to my last $4 or $5 ’cause Paw Paw had to buy Christmas presents for the grandchildren. I have eight,” he said, starting to cry.

“It was God who led me to walk this way today. It’s a pity things like this don’t happen every day. Charlotte needs more people doing this sort of thing.”

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 Kansas City, Mo., businessman Larry Stewart, who is now deceased. In the 1970s, he vowed to help others after a stranger once paid for a much-needed meal for Stewart.

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. The result is a partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police, who escort the couples around the city and thwart potential mob scenes.

One year, the couples gave money to every single person riding a city bus. Another year, they went into a store frequented by immigrants who entered the country illegally, and all customers panicked and scattered like bugs. “One jumped in her car and left her purse and a baby in her shopping cart,” recalled one of the Secret Santas.

The donors like to tell the story of Larry Stewart when they give the money away, in hopes of inspiring recipients to do something kind for someone else. The couples say they also get a lot of pleasure hearing how the people will spend the money.

This year, recipients said they intended to use the money for everything from buying Christmas presents for their children to getting their hair done.

Lisa Koons said she planned to donate the money to a safe house for people rescued from human trafficking. Tyisha Watkins, who lives in YWCA housing, intended to spend the money on buying her sons, ages 2 and 8, all the presents they “didn’t want” for Christmas. This included pants and shirts.

Then there was Daniel Fewell, a Navy veteran, who was given $100 while attending a meeting at Charlotte Bridge Home, a nonprofit that helps veterans. Fewell, 45, gets around in a wheelchair because of a crushed right foot and metal stuck in his leg.

“I’m going to buy underwear,” he said with a grin. “I have arthritis, and I’m not used to the cold after living 10 years in Florida. I need some long johns.”

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