PHOENIX, Dec. 23 (UPI) -- A group of people calling themselves Secret Santas have handed out tens of thousands of dollars in $100 bills around Phoenix in recent days, organizers said.
Accompanied by police officers and retired FBI agents, the Santas have given cash to a waitress, a blind man at a bus stop and a U.S. soldier just back from deployment in Iraq, among others The Arizona Republic said Tuesday. On two days in the past week, they distributed an estimated $40,000, the newspaper said.
Tara Soto, a mother of three and a waitress at the Good Egg in Phoenix, said she was serving breakfast when Secret Santas started putting $100 bills in her hand. Soto, whose husband has Stage 4 colon cancer, said she cried at the generosity.
"We don't want people to feel sorry for us, but he's sick. My husband is sick," she said. "This means Christmas. I didn't want anything to be different for the kids because their dad is sick."
The practice's origin dates back to 1971, when a homeless man named Larry Stewart was so hungry he ordered a breakfast he could not pay for and then pretended he had lost his wallet. The owner of the diner produced a $20 bill from under Stewart's stool and said, "Son, you must have dropped this."
By 1979 Stewart was successful in business in Kansas City and in a position to return the kindness, so he began distributing money to needy people. Stewart died in 2007.
The Phoenix Secret Santas are organized by retired FBI agents Steve Chenowith and Larry McCormick. Chenowith told the Republic it isn't hard to find willing donors.
"No, no, they find us," he said. "And once they do it, they all want to come back and do it again."