BRUNSWICK —Secret Santa and his helpers started making their rounds Wednesday afternoon, handing out more than $3,000 to people waiting outside a Brunswick food pantry.

No one at the Mid Coast Hunger Prevention Program on Union Street knew in advance that Santa was coming, including Executive Director Cyndy Carney.

Many of the recipients burst into tears after being handed an envelope with a $100 bill inside by a man dressed in a Santa Claus suit. One woman said it was a miracle.

“It was a total shock for us,” Carney said of her clients, who come to the food pantry twice a month to receive supplemental supplies of groceries. “This put a bright spot in their day.”

Secret Santa’s arrival in Brunswick marks the third consecutive year that the Portland-area businessman, who insists on remaining anonymous, has given cash to complete strangers.

He tries to target organizations that serve lower income people and families. And he bases his visits on tips emailed to him by his followers.

In 2009, he handed out $10,000 to people visiting Portland’s Goodwill store on Forest Avenue, and last year he doubled the amount to $20,000 during a visit to the Warming Hut food pantry in Sebago.

Secret Santa plans to distribute a total of $20,000 this week. In addition to Brunswick, he plans to make surprise stops in Bangor, Portland and Topsham.

He refuses to disclose the locations, dates or times in those communities, fearing such information might lead to a “mob frenzy.”

Michelle Phinney of Bowdoin lost her job working at a Falmouth movie theater last year, and since then her life and that of her 2-year-old daughter have been filled with challenges, such as coming up with enough money to pay her electric bill.

Phinney said Central Maine Power Co. is threatening to shut off her electrical service.

“Utter amazement and then shock. Thank you whoever you are. You are a wonderful person,” said Phinney, who just happened to be at the food pantry when Santa arrived.

Phinney said she will probably use the $100 to make a payment on her electric bill.

Secret Santa did not personally hand out the bills. Instead, he used an emissary dressed in a Santa suit.

Secret Santa waited in a vehicle parked outside the food pantry. He wore a fake nose-and-eyeglass piece along with a black hooded sweatshirt pulled over the top of his head to protect his identity.

Though he agreed to be interviewed, he would not identify himself. “To me, remaining anonymous is the essence of the giving spirit,” he said.

Secret Santa said he fell short of his goal, which was to hand out $5,000 to people at the food pantry. His helper only found 34 individuals.

He said he’d likely drive to a local laundromat or Salvation Army to give away the rest of the $5,000.

Meanwhile, people at the food pantry were getting over the shock of being handed money.

“I’m a rich man for the first time in 40 years,” said an elderly gentleman, Sean Donovan of Woolwich, referring to the last time he held a full-time job.

Donovan, a member of the United Church of Christ in Bath, said he plans to donate his money to the church’s Good Samaritan program, which provides assistance to families in desperate need of financial help.

“They call us when they don’t have enough money to buy food or gas,” Donovan said.

“I’m in shock,” said Gail Furbush, a retiree from Topsham. Furbush said she may use the $100 to buy a Christmas present for her daughter.

“It’s a blessing because Christmas was beginning to look very bleak for me,” Furbush said. “God bless whoever he is because everyone is hurting this year.”

Secret Santa said he was inspired to give away money by Kansas City’s secret Santa, Larry Stewart.

Stewart spent years anonymously handing out $100 bills. He reportedly gave out more than $1.3 million over two decades before his death in 2007.

“The whole idea is to convince other people to do something similar. We’d love to see it happen more often,” Secret Santa said. He plans to give money away next year as well.

“I want to do this every year in increasing amounts if it’s possible. But you never know because the economy is in such a dicey situation now,” he added.

Each recipient found a brief note in their envelope that encouraged them to either pay it forward or use the cash to make a happier holiday for themselves and their loved ones.

“Either way, we would like to hear from you as to how you chose to use this bit of unexpected Christmas cheer. Please e-mail us at SecretSanta Portland@gmail.com with any stories that you would like to share with us and others.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

dhoey@pressherald.com