Secret Santa: A Follow-Up

Feb 26, 2018

Mandy McCarthy says she used the Secret Santa cash to pay her car insurance bill -- and receiving the money gave her a new perspective on the police.
Credit Christopher Clymer Kurtz

In the week before Christmas, the Harrisonburg Police Department sent out officers with cash, to play Secret Santa and spread holiday cheer one one-hundred dollar bill at a time. One recipient said that earlier in the day she had prayed for money – and we wanted to know how getting it has impacted her. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.


Maybe you heard this moment, back in December. It’s Harrisonburg Police Department Sergeant Ron Howard, giving $100 of Secret Santa cash to Mandy McCarthy.

RON HOWARD: Do you think you could use a hundred dollars?

MANDY MCCARTHY: Yeah. I prayed for God to give me some money, this morning.

HOWARD: You did?

MCCARTHY: Yes.

HOWARD: Well, it’s just your lucky day. I’m going to give you a hundred dollars here, okay?

That day McCarthy told Howard about her difficult past – substance abuse, a suicide attempt, having her child taken away temporarily, rehab – and said that her lawn care job was her chance to give people messages from God.

I wondered what that $100 did for McCarthy, so recently we sat down and talked.

MCCARTHY: I paid for my car insurance, which pretty much took almost all of it, but that was a big worry. When you are living at that level of poverty, really, you are pulling from here and pulling from there for every little thing. Five dollars is a lot, so that’s 20 five-dollar bills. It’s a lot of money. Even though it goes fast, and it doesn’t seem like a big deal, it’s a really big deal to somebody who’s living at that level.

I asked her, in light of all her difficulties, what keeps her going.

MCCARTHY: God. He is the only thing that keeps me going day to day. I go to him for everything and he listens and he responds. I mean, when I got that money, I prayed maybe like three hours before that, so it was like a three-hour turnaround and that’s not the only thing that he’s been like that with.

That Secret Santa day, just her being on the street and visible was an unlikely coincidence – a miracle of sorts.

MCCARTHY: I was doing the insides of people’s yards with the leaf sucker, so I was in fences the entire time.

But after finishing one row of houses, she had decided to take a break and hear out the last bit of a sermon she had been listening to.

MCCARTHY: So that’s the only reason why I was sitting on the side of the road.

CLYMER KURTZ: A three minute window?

MCCARTHY: So if I would have not followed that thought in my mind, which was God, I would have been inside a fence and you never would have seen me.

I asked her if she has ever felt like God has not come through for her.

MCCARTHY: Yeah. I mean that day, if we’re being honest, I prayed for $300. I only got a hundred dollars, but you know, so I mean he didn’t pull through for what I prayed for, but he has provided all along the way. I wasn’t lacking in anything. Maybe lacking in wants, or things that are not necessities, but I wasn’t lacking, and I was okay with that. Afterwards I was like, “Where’s the other two hundred, God? Come on, now!” And it never came. But he takes care of me, so yeah.

Back on that December day, McCarthy said that when she first saw Sergeant Howard, she was a bit worried.

MCCARTHY: I thought I was going to be in trouble. No, cause I thought.

HOWARD: No, we’re just out trying to spread good cheer and I saw you taking a break.

MCCARTHY: That’s really crazy.

MCCARTHY (in interview): I was thinking, “Oh man, it’s about to go down.”

Instead, the Secret Santa effort helped her rethink her own feelings about the police, feelings stemming from her difficult past.

MCCARTHY: There was a little bit of misunderstanding or bitterness or anger, I guess maybe, towards police officers, so that really helped heal my heart in those ways. I know in the story it said they wanted to change people’s opinions of police officers, and it really helped change mine, and so I’m thankful for that.

But there’s something bigger, too.

MCCARTHY: We live in a world where everybody’s just doing their own thing, and doing their own stuff. We don’t always look up to see the people around us, and to realize or acknowledge the struggles that other people are going through. So for somebody to take a step out and go outside of their world and to come into yours, it can change people’s idea of the world that we live in.

When we talked recently, McCarthy was confident she’d get a new job she’d interviewed for – to be a peer support specialist, using her own story to help others facing similar experiences.

MCCARTHY: I want to help everybody that I can realize that there is hope in a world that tells you that there’s not really any hope. And I cannot only speak about it and say that there is hope; I’m just a living example that it can happen.

She started that job last week [Mon. 2/19].