The 365 Ways Blog

Michael Norton is author of "365 Ways to Change the World", which provides an issue for each day of the year, interesting facts, inspiring case studies of people doing things to address the issue and ideas for action. Originally published in the UK, versions with local content have been published in Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the USA. To find out more visit our website:

22 December 2006

Become a Secret Santa

Larry Stewart was interviewed on the Anita Anand "Up All Night" programme on BBC Radio Five Live in the early morning of 22nd December 2002. His story is inspirational.

In 1970, Larry Stewart was cold, hungry, jobless and homeless. He walked into the Dixie Diner in Houston, Mississippi with not a penny in his pocket, and ordered a large meal. When it was time to pay, he started looking for his wallet, pretending he had lost it. The owner of the diner, Ted Horn, realised what was happening, took a $20 bill, came over to where Larry was seated, got down on the floor and peered under Larry’s chair, and pointing to the $20 bill, said to Larry “This is what you must have been looking for; you must have dropped it”. The $20 was quite a considerable sum back in 1970.

This act of kindness to a stranger changed Larry’s life. He vowed to God that if he was ever in a position to help others, he would do it in a way that would allow them to keep their dignity, as Ted had done to him.

Larry Stewart is now a successful businessman living in a Kansas City suburb, who has made his millions in cable TV and long-distance telephone services. Each December, he roams the streets giving money away. He started with $5 and $10 gifts, but now he hands out $100, sometimes several bills at a time, to people in thrift stores, diners and parking lots.

He made his first gift in 1979, at a drive-in restaurant, the week before Christmas just after he had been fired from his job. It was cold and the parking attendant wasn’t warmly dressed. `I think I got it bad. She's out there in this cold making nickels and dimes,'" he said.

He gave her $20 and told her to keep the change. "And suddenly I saw her lips begin to tremble and tears begin to flow down her cheeks. She said, `Sir, you have no idea what this means to me.'” Larry went to the bank, took out $200, and drove around looking for people who could do with a lift. That was "my Christmas present to myself."

Every year since then in the run up to Christmas, Larry has played “Secret Santa” giving away over $1.3 million, keeping his identity secret. But in 2006, after a course of chemotherapy, he decided to “come out” and reveal his identity and to encourage others to become Secret Santas.

This is the Secret Santa mission:
• To show by example that a simple, single act of kindness can change an individual's life for a day or maybe even forever.
• To urge others to give without the expectation of anything in return.
• To show others how to have an impact on the world with acts of kindness that begin in their community.
•To create a Worldwide Network of Secret Santas who carry out Acts of Kindness and share their experiences and ideas with our readers.

You can join the Society Of Secret Santas (SOSS). There are no dues. The only requirement is that Secret Santa members share their acts of kindness with so they can be published. Joining is simple. Just say, "I want to be a member of the Society of Secret Santas".

The Pay-It-Forward Movement

The Pay-It-Forward Movement is the real-life reaction to the release of Catherine Ryan Hyde’s novel "Pay It Forward" in early 2000 when she also set up the Pay It Forward Foundation to spread the idea, which became a Warner Brothers movie. I didn't write the novel expecting a social movement, but it's certainly been exciting to watch it grow.

Alex Southmayd was inspired by this, and set up the Give-It-Forward-Today (G.I.F.T.) foundation. This is what he says:

Hi, I am Alex Southmayd. I’m an eighth grader in Boston, Massachusetts. My hobbies are sports, studying classical piano and trumpet, drama, and singing. My favorite subjects in school are Latin, Physics, Math, and English. Well, that's enough about me. I was inspired to begin this project after I read the novel and saw the movie, "Pay it Forward."

I thought it was great that one kid could really make a big difference in people's lives. One of the many things I have done to make a difference is to play the piano for the retired Sisters of Charity at a retirement home in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts. I talk with them after I have played my music. Some of them feel that they have been forgotten by the world. I make sure to remind them of the wave of human kindness that they have created during their lives.

When I was younger, my dad and I would play a game. We would try to do one good deed a day for someone. It was fun! "Pay it Forward" got me thinking how I could make the game with my father bigger. I brainstormed ideas with my family, and the G.I.F.T. project was born.

“In my novel, an extraordinary young man changes the world. Alex Southmayd is a shining example of the Pay It Forward. We should all take heart in knowing that Alex and his generation will be next in line to care for the world. Thanks Alex for caring about people, and about kindness, and for moving that caring into action.” ¬– Catherine Ryan Hyde

My dad once taught me that if you took a penny at the beginning of a month and doubled it every day, at the end of the month you would have over $5,000,000! If you took $100,000 and compounded it at a 9% interest rate, it would double every eight years. In 48 years you would have $27,000,000.

What would happen if you did an act of kindness for only two people and you inspired those two people to make a promise and do an act of kindness for two other people? You would set in motion a wave of human kindness. This is the mission of G.I.F.T.

Below, Alex has listed 30 Days of G.I.F.T. IDEAS. Pick one idea and find a human being to G.I.F.T. it to! If you are feeling incredibly inspired and motivated to make a difference on the planet, then G.I.F.T. 30 different people over the next 30 days. Tell them about the idea of G.I.F.T. Start a wave of human kindness. Who knows? Perhaps, your wave will change the world!

1. Forgive some who might have wronged you in the past. Go out of your way to do them a favor.
2. Search out someone who may need some real financial assistance. Maybe someone had their lights turned off because they could not pay the bill . You could be the light that they need.
3. Visit an elderly person in need of assistance or a visit.
4. Give someone your car.
5. If you provide services for living, give your services pro bono.
6. Pay someone's mortgage for a month -- or a year for that matter.
7. Help a student with their tuition.
8. Help with an inner city project.
9. Be a mentor.
10. Walk someone's dog.
11. Shovel someone's walkway.
12. Babysit for free.
13. Have a fund raiser at your school.
14. Clean someone's house.
15. Drive people around.
16. Rake someone's leaves.
17. Play music for the elderly.
18. Leave a huge tip next time you go out to dinner.
19. Give a lottery ticket to a stranger.
20. Treat a police officer to a cup of coffee.
21. Bring some goodies to the fire station.
22. Pick up someone's tab the next time you dine out.
23. Pay the highway toll for the person behind you.
24. Invite the less fortunate for Thanksgiving dinner.
25. Donate food, clothing, and money to the needy.
26. Buy the movie tickets for the person behind you.
27. Mow someone's lawn.
28. Cook a nice meal for a friend.
29. Help a homeless person find a home.
30. Read the book, 365 Ways To Change The World, by Michael Norton, and then give the book to a stranger.

Give It Forward Today:
Alex Southmayd has also set up Kids Tutor Kids to “help our generation do better academically and to make parents happy!”: