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Secret Santa makes a difference

What would you do if somebody walked up to you, handed you a $100 bill, and then walked away? Feel pretty lucky, I imagine. Until earlier this week, I probably would have agreed with you. But it turns out the guy who handed you the money is really the lucky one.

On Monday Kevin Tibbles and I were fortunate enough to meet a Kansas City businessman by the name of Larry Stewart. Stewart has made millions in telecommunications over the years, but there was time when he wasn't so fortunate. He's the subject of our "Making a Difference" story tonight.

Once homeless and hungry himself, $20 from a diner owner changed the course of his whole life. He vowed if he was ever in a position to do the same for others he would. Eight years later, Stewart was having a tough time once again. He lost his job just weeks before Christmas. Even though he only had $600 in his bank account, he took out $200 in $10s and $20s and started handing them out to people. Kansas City's Secret Santa was born... and Larry Stewart's luck started to turn around. By January he had his job back. Three years later Stewart was a millionaire and Secret Santa switched to $100 bills. Since then he's handed out more than $1.3 million. Handing out $100s to strangers was Stewart's Christmas gift to himself every year.

In the '90s, Stewart began inviting members of the local media along on his "sleigh rides," just as long as they agreed not to reveal his identity. He wanted to learn about the people whose lives he was changing. For more than a decade, trying to guess Secret Santa's identity has been a parlor game in Kansas City during the Holidays.

But the secret is out. Since coming forward last month, Stewart's been speaking to community groups about the power of random acts of kindness. He's even been signing up other Secret Santas on his Web site.

Stewart's also preparing for one his greatest challenges. In April he found out he had esophageal cancer. Even worse, the cancer has spread to his liver. He begins chemotherapy in January, but vows this won't be his last Christmas.

By coming forward and telling his story, Stewart hoped to teach people a lesson about the power of giving, especially during the holidays. I know he taught me one.