CHARLOTTE, NC (Jane Wester/Charlotte Observer) - The last moments of lunch at Oakhurst STEAM Academy Wednesday were interrupted by head custodian Renee Moore's scream.
"Hallelujah!" she yelled, throwing her arms in the air before hugging a $100 bill to her chest.
Moore was one of dozens of people around Charlotte benefiting from four anonymous volunteers' Secret Santa project, which is in its 11th year.
Clad in red berets and accompanied by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, the volunteer "elves" hand out $100 bills to people they think could use a boost.
Some of the distribution is planned in advance – they stopped at the Veterans Bridge Home, at Charlotte Rescue Mission, at Oakhurst – but the elves and their police escort also pulled over to hand money to people waiting for the bus and walking around their neighborhoods.
The total amount they give out varies, but it's easily tens of thousands of dollars, said Charles Rappleyea, who was part of the CMPD escort until he retired this year.
All the elves ask is that recipients treat someone else with kindness.
In the cafeteria at Oakhurst, Moore couldn't stop crying.
She's moving into a Habitat for Humanity house soon and saving for her down payment. She's most of the way there, but $100 will certainly help.
The elves gave more $100 bills – all stamped with "Secret Santa" in red – to Oakhurst's cafeteria staff and several teachers.
"Are you serious?!" asked Meghan Felix, who had welcomed the elves into her first-grade classroom so they could tell the story of Secret Santa. Felix watched all her students receive coloring books from the elves and was shocked to get a gift herself.
The story, acted out by the elves in Oakhurst classrooms and explained more briefly to every recipient, starts in Mississippi in 1971.
A man named Larry Stewart ordered a meal in a diner, knowing he didn't have enough money to pay for it, the volunteers said.
Someone working in the diner helped Stewart out, giving him $20 and telling him he must have dropped it.
Stewart, who became a successful businessman, never forgot the gift. He started giving out $100 bills around Kansas City, never telling the recipients his real name.
Stewart died several years ago, but the Secret Santa project spread to other cities. The Charlotte elves started giving out money in 2006.
Some people try to run away from the elves' "reverse muggings" on the roadside, especially when they see the motorcycle cops and flashing blue lights. Some are confused, and some are quick to ask if the elves couldn't find someone who needs the help more.
Kerry Shine, who was walking on Rozzelles Ferry Road near the Lakewood neighborhood, didn't hide his emotion. Wiping tears on the white sleeve of his shirt, he told the elves no one had ever done something like this for him before.
The elves say reactions like Shine's aren't unusual.
"I think there's also this mental part of it," one elf said. "That somebody cared enough about me to give me something, regardless of what it is."
That's why the elves want more people to know about their project – even if you can't afford to give anybody a $100 bill, they say, small acts of kindness matter.
Several people said they'd use the money to buy Christmas gifts.