Cambrian: Slice of Life

Doing good when nobody is watching: A tribute to the ‘Secret Santas’ of the North Coast

Kathe Tanner
Kathe Tanner

“You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” — Poet John Bunyan

“The real generosity is when a man does something generous when nobody knows about it.” — Idries Shah, “Learning How to Learn: Psychology and Spirituality in the Sufi Way”

“But let me offer a word of caution. If you choose to give from your heart, be careful. The most incredible feeling might just overwhelm you. And if you continue in this behavior, that feeling may become permanent.” — Steve Goodier

A woman in Cayucos donates dozens of pairs of shoes to needy children she’ll never meet. A local donor gives more than $2,000 worth of gift cards.

They’re unlauded Secret Santas, and their halos are shining brightly during this season of giving.

A most magical part of the holidays is anonymous generosity, gifts given without expecting anything in return — no credit, thanks, applause or even a hug.

For some of us, being a Secret Santa is limited to official gift exchanges, often held at work-related celebrations or in large family groups. Related activities, often labeled “White Elephant” or “Dirty Santa” games, can be fun but are rarely philanthropic.

Many of us participate as Secret Santas in programs such as Toys for Tots and the Season of Hope. Individual donations of toys and food go into a big assortment that’s then divvied up among children and families who cannot afford those things.

Cash helps, too.

Events like Cambria’s Festival of Trees count, of course. Donors decorate their own trees or wreaths and donate them to an auction where others bid to buy them … and, in some cases, donate them back so they can be sold again, with all of the thousands of dollars raised going toward local public-serving programs and nonprofit entities.

Cambria’s free Thanksgiving dinner for all is a great example of Secret Santa-hood, even if it is a month early.

Our service clubs and nonprofits do Secret Santa-ish good deeds all year. American Legion Troop Support folks who gather donations to go to active-duty service personnel. Cambria Lions Club members who do so much, including Pinedorado and their annual free food-gift-and-fun party for youngsters. Local Rotarians who donate tons of time, money and effort to help people at home and all over the world. The Cambria Connection, of course. And many more.

Perhaps the purest form of Secret Santahood, however, is when somebody makes a difference for other people they may never meet.

Secret Santas like Chuck McMillan of Cambria Hardware, Bonnie and Ruben Villalobos, Terry and Jeri Farrell, Father Mark of Santa Rosa Catholic Church, right-there-whenever-you-need-him folks like David “Smokedogg” Drew and so many more.

Some of those givers eventually are acknowledged publicly as a town’s citizen of the year, parade marshal or with certificates and thanks from governmental agencies and representatives.

Others are never outed. And that’s just the way they want it.

What motivates people like that?

I asked the Cayucos donor, having learned that, for the second December in a row, the Secret Santa-ess had donated dozens of shoes to young North Coast children. This year, the total was 56 pairs, all bought in precise sizes and styles for specific youngsters.

She shyly dodges any credit, deflecting instead to others who coordinate such activities as a recent party for the families. “I’m just the little elf who works behind the scenes.”

Adamant about not wanting to be identified, she said, “if you use my name, then everybody would know who I am, and it wouldn’t be as much fun … It makes my Christmas to be able to give back” anonymously.

I can only pinpoint her as being “a grandmother from Cayucos who loves those children.”

Why shoes? “When I was little, we got two pairs of shoes, one in winter, one in summer,” she recalled.

With her gift of wintertime shoes now, those parents “have one less thing to worry about” during the holiday season, when there are so many other demands on their limited incomes, time and other resources.

Lots of families whose combined paychecks still leave them living below the poverty line are just now beginning to recover from the financially devastating year-plus closure of Highway 1, when full-time service-industry jobs dried up to a day or two a week. Maybe.

It was tough, and the ripples are still being felt.

That’s why individuals, churches, service clubs, food vendors, businesses and business organizations dug deep and donated much to a recent party sponsored by Cambria Connection.

Children and families were treated to a festive holiday evening of food, fun, face-painting, entertainment, a visit from Santa and much more.

The shoes donated by the Secret Santa-ess had been handed out earlier “so the children could wear them to the party,” she said.

But dozens of other donations, including the gift cards, had been cobbled together into stacks of wrapped presents and baskets of goodies and necessities (everything from shampoo and household paper products to detergent).

There was no listing of donors. No public acknowledgments, thanks or applause. And that’s just how it was supposed to be.

The children’s laughter and parents’ smiles were more than enough reward for all that generosity from so many Secret Santas whose halos are firmly in place for this holiday season and beyond.

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