PHOENIX — Teresa Moreno was watching television from her faded green couch when Santa came calling wearing blue jeans and a bright smile.
Moreno, 81, couldn't believe her eyes. She was among those getting unexpected help at Christmastime, just as she had seen so many times on TV.
"Oh, my goodness, oh, my Lord, thank you, Lord," she repeated, burying her face into her wrinkled hands, happy, bewildered and embarrassed over the sudden spotlight.
The Phoenix resident, who raised five kids, still supports a daughter and two grandchildren, one with Down syndrome, on her fixed income. She's the kind of person who tries to get presents for her babies for Christmas from the dollar store even when her air-conditioning is out just to see the smiles on their faces.
As she wiped away tears, so did her Secret Santa, who is part of a group of metro Phoenix residents who share their good fortune with others.
They are part of a national movement of anonymous donors who fan out in their communities to spread the message that people still care.
"You're going to make me cry," said one of Moreno's anonymous Santas.
Another sat on a nearby couch, tears welling, as he handed out $100 bills for each family member — $600 total once the family dog was included.
Such emotions are worth the effort for Peoria residents Steve Chenoweth and Larry McCormick, who organized the Secret Santas as part of secretsantaworld.net.
Chenoweth and McCormick, retired FBI agents, were inspired by their friend Larry Stewart, a Kansas philanthropist who for 20 years randomly handed out $100 bills at Christmas. Stewart, who was once homeless but became wealthy as a telecommunications entrepreneur, never forgot one act of kindness when someone slipped him a $20 bill to pay for a meal he couldn't afford.
"We want to continue his legacy," McCormick said.
The pair has been organizing the metropolitan Phoenix area's Secret Santas for six years.
Stewart-inspired Secret Santa "sleigh rides" now happen across the country. Donors remain anonymous. They want the recipient to get all the attention.
Here in metro Phoenix, the two-day sleigh ride in a white Chevy van gifted about $30,000 to about 80 people last week.
A Glendale police cruiser followed the van to provide security and to ensure traffic flowed smoothly during the random stops.
A surprised Nicole Williamson was walking her son, Jadyn, 8, home from school when the Secret Santas rolled up and gave her $200. She took home the message of helping others, especially in these difficult times.
"Hope sometimes dwindles," she said. "(But) there are still good people out there who are spreading the love of God."
Williamson said some of the money would go toward toys for her son and the rest would go to help someone else she knows who is in need.
Chenoweth said organizing this year's event was all worth it to see the happiness on the face of a Glendale Walmart shopper, who was approached by the Secret Santas and given $1,000. The man's sister had recently died and he was taking care of her three children on top of his four. He was struggling to make a meaningful Christmas.
Chenoweth said others tell the Secret Santas they don't need the money but ask if they can use it to help others.
"It's fantastic to see that sense of giving come alive," he said.
The small brigade of Secret Santas don't just hand out the money. They share Stewart's story to keep his spirit alive.
On Thursday, the Secret Santas made a stop at the Children First Academy in Phoenix to hand out candy canes, crayons and coloring books that told Stewart's story.
Santa and an elf read aloud from one of the coloring books and then asked the children if they would do anything nice for others.
"Yeah," about 35 third- and-fourth-graders replied in unison.
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com