Secret Santa hands out $20,000 in Phoenix

Published: December 5, 2007 | 6872nd good news item since 2003

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.”

A mystery Santa came early to Phoenix on Tuesday to dole out money to people who needed a holiday boost. Nearly $20,000 was given away by Santa and his crew of elves.

It’s part of a holiday tradition that began 28 years ago when Larry Stewart, a Kansas City businessman, started handing out $100 bills after he had made his first million. Stewart died earlier this year, but his legacy continues. Phoenix is the first of five cities nationwide that will be visited this year. About $150,000 will be anonymously given away.

“The person who gets it gets some sort of connection,” said Santa, who wants to be known only as a Kansas City businessman. “It’s not just about the money. It’s the act. Somebody cares. For them, it gives them hope.

“This Secret Santa stuff is all about love, and it’s unconditional. This is something that is priceless, and it’s irreplaceable.”

On Tuesday morning, Sabrina Martinez was flipping through clothes at a thrift store, searching for Christmas gifts for her five children.

“I was kinda looking for stuff with tags on them, so they look new,” Martinez said.

That’s when Santa walked up, handed her $300 and disappeared. Tears filled Martinez’s eyes. She could buy her children a real Christmas tree and presents to go under it.

“It’s a blessing,” she said. “I feel like I won the lottery.”

The only thing Santa asks in return is that recipients of the money do something nice for someone else. That’s what got Stewart started in the first place.

Back in 1971, Stewart was homeless, penniless and hungry in Mississippi when he went to a local diner and ordered a breakfast he couldn’t pay for. When the bill came, Stewart acted like he had lost his wallet. The diner’s owner reached under his stool and appeared to pick up a $20 bill.

“Son,” he said, “you must have dropped this.”

Stewart promised if he was ever in a position to help someone else, he would.

Stewart’s goal was to have a Secret Santa in every major U.S. city, something those who are carrying on his tradition hope to achieve.

For six hours Tuesday, Santa and his elves cruised the streets, doling out crisp bills stamped with Larry Stewart’s name. Former Arizona Diamondback left fielder Luis Gonzalez joined the group, as did Phoenix police officers and a firefighter.

At the Thomas J. Pappas School for homeless children, Santa told Stewart’s story to 14 children, giving each of them their own $20 bill.

“That’s nice,” a girl gushed as she held the bill, then tucked it into her pocket.

Every child at the school received a coloring book.

“This world is full of hope. This world is full of dreams,” Santa told the children. “You can be whatever you want to be, just like Secret Santa.”

At the Early home, there was no Christmas tree, no holiday decorations. Rebecca and Lino Early buried their 10-year-old son, Joseph, in November, after he succumbed to a rare form of cancer. The Earlys thought members of the Phoenix Fire Department were making a follow-up visit when Santa showed up. He heard about the couple’s three other children and the nephew they took in when his mother died.

Santa handed them $1,000.

“This will go to the kids. Thank you,” Rebecca said. “The kids were always asking for this and that. I was telling them it wasn’t going to be normal and not to wish for many things. We’re maybe not even going to have a Christmas. Thanks to you guys, it’s going to look better for them, and they’re going to be happy.”

Along his journey, Santa and his elves gave $100 to a homeless man pushing all his belongings in a shopping cart, to a mother buying a bike for her 9-year-old son and to a man looking for a jacket for his stepdaughter’s funeral.

Angel Garza was waiting for a bus to El Paso with his pregnant fiancee and two children. The family’s apartment in California had been robbed, and they left with $400 and the clothes on their backs. That was four days ago. They had just spent their last $7 on corndogs for the kids when Santa handed them $300. Tears trickled down Garza’s cheek.

“We don’t have no clothes. We don’t have nothing,” Garza said. “It really is going to help.”

Thelma Cooper could barely speak after Gonzalez bought her a Christmas tree at a Phoenix thrift store. Earlier Tuesday, Cooper had been at the store to buy girls’ dresses to donate to charity. She returned to buy the tree for her mother but didn’t have enough money.

“God just blessed me back,” Cooper said through tears.

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