Secret Santa inspires heroin addict to clean up

On the Road: Hope for the holidays 03:24

READING, Pa. - Every year, CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman goes out with Secret Santa - an anonymous businessman who travels the country at Christmas time. Secret Santa randomly goes up to people in bus stations and thrift stores and hands out 100 dollar bills.

To submit an idea for On the Road, send us an e-mail

"We can change the world one random act of kindness at a time," says Secret Santa.

Learn more about Secret Santa

The reactions from the people receiving money are priceless - from surprise to utter disbelief. Secret Santa spends sometimes more than $100,000 of his own money on this venture.

Watch: Who is the Secret Santa? (2007)

Is it worth it?

"You don't know what these people are gong to do with this money," Hartman asked. "Do you care?"

"No," Secret Santa replied. "Because one of the things that I do is, I do not judge."

That's a good thing, because separating the naughty from nice is definitely not his forte.

One of the people Secret Santa gave money to is 30-year-old Thomas Coates.

"I didn't earn that," Coates said to Secret Santa.

"You did earn it," Secret Santa replied. "Because I can tell you're a good man."

Watch: Secret Santa focuses on working poor (2008)

Coates started to tear up, and said the last time he was called a good man was by "maybe, um, my mom."

Coates is a deadbeat by most accounts, including his own. Addicted to heroin, he recently hocked his own son's toys for drug money - that's how bad it is.

Thomas Coates, 30, struggles with drug addiction in Reading, Penn.
Thomas Coates, 30, struggles with drug addiction in Reading, Pa. CBS News

"I haven't worked in over a year," Coates said. "I spent so much time in and out of treatment facilities."

Why his girlfriend hasn't left him and taken their son is a mystery - even to her. But she is now running out of patience. Which is why the night before we met him - during yet another one of their many fights - she suggested he try something radical - a prayer.

Coates said his girlfriend told him, "'Maybe you can shoot a prayer up to God real quick. I know you don't really believe in him, but maybe you can start."

And so he did pray for the first time since childhood. Then, out of the blue, Secret Santa shows up slipping $100 bills into his hand. A display of that kind of kindness from a total stranger the day after he prayed was too much of a coincidence for this atheist to bear.

Watch: Secret Santas strike again (2009)

"It's amazing," Coates said. "That to me was a miracle. That was God saying, 'Alright, you had enough now. I'm going to show you something.' So from here on out it's up to me."

After meeting Secret Santa, Coates checked himself into a treatment facility. And although he's done it before, he says this will be the first time with a higher power at the helm.

"Maybe that gave him the hope that he needs to break his addiction," Secret Santa said. "And maybe that will be the turning point that will change his life and maybe he won't go back. Wouldn't that be worth it?"

  • Steve Hartman
    Steve Hartman

    Steve Hartman has been a CBS News correspondent since 1998, having served as a part-time correspondent for the previous two years.