By On December 6th, 2013

Paying It Forward During the Holidays in the Spirit of Secret Santa

Larry Stewart

Larry Stewart

As we are getting closer to the Holiday Season I have been noticing more news stories depicting “Random Acts of Kindness” across the country and the world.  Among the most recent trends that have caught my attention are the “Pay It Forward” stories at the drive thru windows at fast food and coffee businesses where one inspired person pays for not only their order but the order of the person behind them as well.  In most cases it sparks a chain reaction of paying for the merchandise ordered by the person behind.  These gestures of kindness are wonderful (and too often ignored) changes of pace to the more popular news stories of crime and disasters.  With the Holiday Season coming upon us came an idea of how can we take the “Pay It Forward” concept to a new level.  How can the inspiration of Pay It Forward be harnessed to address the hidden spectrums of depression, suicide and living with mental illness during what Andy Williams joyously sang as “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”?

Almost instantly the name Larry Stewart came to mind. For those of you not living in the Kansas City vicinity from 1979-2006, until shortly before his death in 2007, Mr. Stewart was affectionately unknown as Secret Santa.  Coincidentally, the transformation of this hero started in 1971 when a penniless Larry experienced the kindness of a free dinner from a Mississippi diner owner named Ted Horn.  Things started getting better for Larry until shortly before Christmas in 1979. He had just lost his job and found himself in another diner when he noticed one of the carhops working in the cold without a sufficient jacket.  The carhop made him realize he was in a better place. Before him was a woman, working in the cold for nickel and dime tips, so who was he to feel sorry for himself.  Instinctively he gave the woman $20.00 and told her to keep the change. Over the next 27 years Larry’s business life became very prosperous, and with it came a passion for giving back.  Inspired by the compassion of Tom Horn and the tears of joy with the words “Sir, you have no idea what this means to me”, Secret Santa was born. From 1979 to his last Christmas Crusades in 2006, it is estimated Secret Santa anonymously gave out $1.3 million.  His outreach included helping the homeless, donating to people after hearing stories of need in the news, as well as outreach to the survivors of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Larry prided himself on keeping his anonymity and managed to keep his identity secret until shortly before his death news of a tabloid about to expose his identity motivated him to get the story out on his own terms.

So in the absence of a million dollars, how can we take the inspiration of Secret Santa to a new level of giving in the holiday season?  The holidays present us with an opportunity to give a greater gift for those experiencing sadness in the season of joy. This is not such a wondrous time of year for individuals living through depression, suicidal thoughts, other types of mental illness and physical disabilities. We are presented with many avenues and opportunities to experience goodwill toward others.  Let’s start by putting our wallets, purses and plastic down and look at the actual needs of people distressed by the holidays.  When you step back the greatest action in the launch of Secret Santa was Larry Stewart’s ability to take a previous life experience and recognize a greater need in the carhop.  This was quickly followed by assessing his capacity to give. Some of us have encountered a Ted Horn in our life who through basic intuition recognized we were at a low point, and met us at that place without judgment, provided us with something we desperately needed in that moment with compassion and dignity. Then just as Ted Horn had done for him, Larry met the carhop exactly where she was at because he had been there.  Though both situations involved the passing of money, the most underestimated intrinsic elements from both of these events were recognition from someone that they existed, and the courage to take action.  Money was just a vehicle.  The gifts of attentive listening and time to be heard can make a real difference to somebody experiencing significant holiday stress.

Although Thanksgiving through the New Year presents us with many avenues and opportunities to experience goodwill toward others, becoming a difference maker in the lives of others requires letting go of old ideals and habits.  It took Larry Stewart eight years between Ted Horn’s random act of kindness to his moment of action with the carhop.  Move up your 2014 New Year’s Resolution to December 2013.  Reach out to just one person in need and provide them the gift of attentive listening and time to be heard.  If you are up to giving more of yourself working food pantries, serving holiday dinners to the homeless or people in need are excellent opportunities to exercise your new found gifts.  They are also wonderful venues for experiencing the special people who bring their compassion to assist those in need on a daily basis.  Then on Christmas Day ask yourself what is more satisfying the lump on your right buttocks or the thump of your heart?  What was more rewarding, writing a check for a faceless cause or the memory a smile from a stranger through your gift of time?  Better yet, step back and reflect.  Who was the actual “Difference Maker”?



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