She gave to stranger, and Santa gave to her

Published December 23, 2006

TAMPA - Rene Robinson had a sinking feeling that she had forgotten to bring enough money as she watched her grocery bill being tallied at the Fowler Avenue Sweetbay Supermarket three weeks ago.

She started pulling items off the belt to lower the tab. But veteran cashier Rebecca Harmon would have none of it. Harmon scanned it all, then reached down and pulled a $10 bill out of her own wallet. She handed the register receipt and change to Robinson, a customer she had never seen before.

"I couldn't believe it," said Robinson, a 45-year-old artist from Atlanta who was staying at a nearby hotel. "When I mentioned my good fortune at a Tampa Wal-Mart a day later, an older woman behind me in line said, 'Some people get all the luck. Nothing like that ever happened to me.' So I decided to 'Sweetbay' her. I had the clerk put her groceries on my bill."

The pay-it-forward moment didn't end there, however. It was dark outside and Robinson saw the woman wheel her shopping cart across the Wal-Mart parking lot to a bus stop. Robinson gave her a ride home, then offered her cell phone number if she needed a lift for errands.

When Robinson returned to tell Harmon's bosses at Sweetbay about their cashier's generosity, they decided to give Harmon a $50 gift card for going beyond the call of duty for a customer. Harmon, however, balked at Robinson's offer to pay her back the $10 plus a big tip.

"You would have done the same thing for me," she replied.

"I was so touched that I've found myself caught up in this infectious giving spirit several times this holiday season," said David Gamble, Sweetbay district manager for north Tampa. "Instead of dropping a few coins in the Salvation Army kettles, for instance, I've put in bills."

The Florida Retail Federation stepped in on Friday, naming Harmon, a 41-year-old single mother of two, winner of the statewide trade group's second annual Spirit of Santa contest.

She had been nominated by Gamble.

The federation surprised Harmon by hiring a professional Santa to run an order through her cash register at Sweetbay. When Santa came up short of cash, Harmon reached down for her purse again.

Instead, Santa presented her with $750 in gift cards donated by other retailers, a $500 check and a three-day weekend at a Daytona Beach resort.

"This means we'll have a real Christmas for my kids," said Harmon, who was given the rest of the day off with pay to catch up on her shopping.

"Rebecca reminds us all of the true meaning of the holiday season," said Rick McAllister, federation president and chief executive.

Added Robinson: "Rebecca is special."

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727)893-8252.