There’s nothing like getting a knock on the door and receiving a present during the holiday season. Now, imagine that knock is actually from a “Secret Santa” bearing gifts that include thousands of dollars in checks and sometimes, even cars.
Families across the Eastern Idaho region have been fortunate to be the recipients of gifts from a very mysterious and generous "Secret Santa," who for the past six years has worked in secrecy.
“Are you kidding?!” sobbed kindergarten teacher Darci Orchard as she was surprised with a car.
“This is amazing,” Carissa Heaps, a mom of eight who is also caring for many ill family members, exclaimed as she was also gifted a car.
A blind man and his wife, Robert and Phoenix Rowley, got hundreds of dollars in gift cards and a $5,000 cashier’s check to help pay off mounting medical bills.
These are three of about 100 families this season that will receive an extra bit of holiday magic thanks to a man with the generous heart.
Nate Eaton, news director of East Idaho News, has been facilitating the surprises for the last six years. Since the “Secret Santa” is anonymous, Eaton has become the face of the entire operation. He’s the one showing up on doorsteps handing out the presents.
“It is a local person here. I think if you were to meet him on the street, he might deny it,” said Eaton, who is the only one on his team who knows Santa's true identity.
It all started with a random phone call in 2015. Eaton answered the phone of a man who wanted to share his wealth and wanted to see if the news station would help spread his passion for holiday cheer. It was such a success the first year, the secret donor has kept it up every single year by upping the pot.
This year, more than $500,000 in gifts will be given out to members of the community, the population of which is about 200,000. Some gifts will be bigger than ever and will include money towards a prosthetic leg, a pickup truck and a 15-seat passenger van.
“The key is you don't want to have somebody receive a large gift and then [they] have to pay the taxes on it or any fees or things like that,” he explained of how it works. “So Secret Santa covers all of that. If somebody gets a car, the taxes have been paid for. The only thing the person has to pay is the registration and he gives them a check to take care of that.”
The challenge of surprising the community has gotten tougher, as many now recognize Eaton and his posse of "elves," known on every other day of the year as his news crew.
“People will see us out and the minute they see a Santa hat, they're like, ‘Oh, we know what they're up to,’” Eaton said.
Each family is nominated to be recipients of the donations and then Eaton and his team vet the candidates in a time-consuming process that he says could be a full-time job itself. It’s been especially tough this year with Eaton and his team simultaneously covering the Lori and Chad Daybell case.
“It was last year, we were on our last day of Secret Santa's deliveries, when the police sent out a release about JJ and Tylee missing,” Eaton recalled. “So it's been non-stop all year. But I'll tell you, I've been looking forward to Secret Santa all year just to kind of have a break from that.”
On June 9, the bodies of Tylee and JJ were found buried on Chad Daybell's property.
Chad was arrested moments after the bodies were found. He has pleaded not guilty to two felony counts of concealment or destruction of evidence, East Idaho News reported. Lori Daybell also pleaded not guilty on Sept. 10 to two felony counts of conspiracy to commit destruction and alteration or concealment of evidence.
Because so many eyeballs have been focused on the case, especially East Idaho’s YouTube page for updates, this year the secret Santa stories will reach an even wider audience.
“People that are watching, thinking, ‘Wait, what is this? They're giving away over $500,000 and there's no catch. What is this?’”