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ST. LOUIS (Reuters Life!) - The Secret Santa Claus of St. Louis had no beard, no pot belly and no reindeer.
She was a diminutive business woman, smartly dressed in a red beret jacket, blue jeans and a black scarf to fight the icy winds off the Mississippi River.
Escorted by firemen through city neighborhoods, she was one of a dozen or so Secret Santas who have given away thousands of dollars across the nation the week before Christmas.
While passing by the Goody Goody Diner and empty lots, she suddenly became emotional.
"There will never be enough," she told a reporter along for the ride. "It's so overwhelming to know that there are so many needy people. I know I'll never be able to give enough to everybody who needs money. That leaves an empty feeling."
After seeing a woman holding a little boy at a bus stop the Secret Santa handed her a $100 bill and said "Merry Christmas."
Lakeisha Starks, a 20-year-old college student who is raising two young children on her own, looked up slowly, a giant grin spreading across her face.
"I was just taking my son to the doctor. Thank you so much," she said.
"Be kind to someone else," Santa responded. Back in the van, she added, "That's what makes doing this worth it."
The nationwide effort to help people with anonymous cash at Christmas was the idea of the original Secret Santa Larry Stewart, who gave away more than $1.5 million over 26 years before dying of cancer in 2007. Before his death he formed the Society of Secret Santas to pass out money around the country.
"He was this amazing person who planted a seed that has spread over the United States," said the St. Louis Santa who had met Stewart shortly before he died.
Secret Santas have appeared this season in Cleveland, Kansas City and Detroit, where each of 20 or so bus passengers got $100.
In Phoenix, money was given to needy people at the Greyhound bus station. In Des Moines, Iowa, college students and thrift store shoppers received cash, while in Oklahoma City, Santa gave a man in a wheelchair $100.
The biggest donors were in Flint, Mich., where $100,000 was given to buy toys for needy kids and in Joplin, Mo., where five $20,000 cashier's checks were folded neatly inside $1 bills dropped in the donation kettle. On each check the remitter's name: Santa Claus.
The St. Louis Secret Santa said all her fellow Santas were people who "get it," wealthy people with compassion and a non-judgmental attitude.
"You can't judge the people you are giving money to," she said. "If they spend the money on liquor, that's what they need to do."
Among the lucky recipients of Secret Santa's cash in St. Louis were Karen Weisburg, 38, who said she would buy presents for her three kids.
Joshua Isreal, 45, shouted "God bless you" several times to the Secret Santa before he was asked what he was going to do with the money.
"Save and invest," he answered firmly. "Save and invest. But first I better get some change so I can do my laundry."
Editing by Greg McCune and Patricia Reaney