Sitting in Reading’s Inter-City Bus Terminal on Tuesday night, Thomas Coates Jr. was out of work and out of hope. Then, out of the blue, a stranger sat next to him and restored his faith in human kindness. Identifying himself only as Secret Santa, the stranger handed Coates two crisp $100 bills and wished him a Merry Christmas. Coates, 36, who lives in Pottstown with his girlfriend and son, wept. “I was brought up to believe that you take care of your family, but I can’t find a job,” said Coates, burying his face in his hands. “This man said to me, ‘You’re a good man,’ and it felt good to hear that.” The bus terminal was only one stop on a whirlwind tour of downtown Reading and beyond, where Secret Santa handed $100 bills to people he felt needed a helping hand at Christmastime.
Reading has the highest poverty rate of cities across the nation with more than 65,000 residents, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. The unnamed Good Samaritan Santa had read about the plight of Reading’s residents. Secret Santa traversed the city, handing out cash to those he thought could use it. In all, he gave away an estimated $20,000 of his own money, mostly in $100 bills stamped “Secret Santa” in red. “Cities like Reading are experiencing tough economic times,” Secret Santa said. “It’s time for us to step up, not step back.”
At the Salvation Army, Secret Santa handed $100 bills to volunteers, children, a dishwasher and a housekeeper. Leaving the building, he encountered a woman waiting in the rain to pick up her children from an after-school program. “How many children do you have?” he asked. “Six,” replied Elizabeth Colon, 37, of Reading. “You have six children?” he repeated. “Well, here, one hundred, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, five hundred, six hundred – a hundred for each child.”
Sitting nearby was Lara Walkoff, 24, a medical student at George Washington University who had been to Reading Hospital for a job interview and was waiting for the bus to arrive. Santa sat next to her, chatted briefly and gave her $100. Walkoff, who’s from Florida, had never heard of anything like it. “I’m sure there are a lot of people who can use the money,” she said. And, as a medical student who’s graduating in May, she could certainly use the cash. “I don’t have a lot of money; that’s why I’m riding the bus,” she confided. “But I think I will find someone who needs this $100 more than I do.” Secret Santa would be proud.
The current Secret Santa is continuing a tradition begun by the late Larry Stewart in Kansas City, KS. Stewart had once been down and out and received a handout from the owner of the Dixie Diner in Houston, MO. Although he went on to make millions in cable television, Stewart never forgot the kindness. Posing as Secret Santa, he gave away $1.3 million over 25 years until his death in 2006. “I promised him on his deathbed that I would continue the tradition of Secret Santa,” the current Santa said. Secret Santa will visit cities ranging from San Diego to Detroit in the coming weeks, enlisting the help of “elves” like NFL great Dick Butkus and comedian Larry the Cable Guy.