TODAY   |  December 25, 2012

Retired teacher finds presents for hundreds of kids

Every year, Mary Sauter, a retired schoolteacher in Albia, Iowa, helps needy children in her town have happy holidays by spending her own limited funds on presents and clothing. NBC’s  Bob Dotson reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> "today's american story with bob dotson " comes from albion, iowa, where some say they have an angel in the shadows. bob is here to explain that. happy holidays , bob. good morning.

>> happy holidays , everybody.

>> good morning.

>> they do have a name for this angel but most people in the town haven't heard it because she works her small miracles mostly unnoticed. mary got tired of wishes and empty dreams.

>> oh, no.

>> reporter: so she started trading in cans to buy things for kids in need.

>> when i first started, it was just a little thing.

>> reporter: now --

>> oh, my god, i need more carts.

>> reporter: retired schoolteacher from albia, iowa is rich in good intentions, but little else.

>> please take it.

>> reporter: yet each year she spends about $10,000 of her savings, another 20,000 she earns at albia athletic events working concession stands and tutoring students after school.

>> now you're getting it. good so far.

>> reporter: no, she also takes care of her father. he's 100.

>> because we really went overboard.

>> reporter: brought him into her home after he started going blind .

>> i have no idea what might have become of me.

>> reporter: herb once took mary into his house. he had already adopted two boys and was in his 40s when he found her in an italian orphanage. your dad had something for you.

>> this was the bear, and, you know, it's still in the family.

>> i took it out and she didn't understand the english, of course.

>> reporter: but she understood teddy bear .

>> understood teddy bear .

>> i think that's too old for him.

>> reporter: 56 years later childhood toys still surround marry.

>> just go ahead and do piecework, sweetheart.

>> reporter: she came to realize.

>> we had things because mom and dad didn't.

>> reporter: they taught her to hunt for bargains.

>> only 30%.

>> you don't want that.

>> reporter: 90% off let's her clothe 500 kids.

>> and you next. don't worry, i won't forget you, okay?

>> reporter: behind every sweet face mary sees a tale of hardship and endurance and parents struggling to survive.

>> they are working, working very, very hard, but they are barely making ends meet because they are making just above minimum wage.

>> reporter: that's why marry is as constant as their need.

>> did i put these on the wrong foot? you can tell i'm not a mother.

>> reporter: she never had children of her own. she's not married, but each year mary fills this 7,000 square footwear house with all those gifts that light up little faces.

>> oh, wow is that pretty. look at that. you like that? here you go, doll. just grab a pile, okay, hon.

>> reporter: she enlists former students and their presents to link the right present to the right child.

>> she's made her place in heaven, she has. she's amazing.

>> reporter: despite the small army of friends that help out what mary does is still mostly a secret. 20 years ago a young widow with three children under eight found some gifts at her front door after her husband died in an automobile accident . linda never knew who left them until mary hired her to take care of her. one day mary mentioned she wrapped gifts in newspaper comics, and i turned around and i looked at her and i said that was you?

>> the daughter of the man linda is nursing had secretly sent her children gifts during the darkest time of their lives.

>> oh, my god. i'm going to have to go back to work.

>> reporter: a lot of us buy for the less fortunate during the holidays. mary shops sales year round, practically non-stop.

>> there's no such thing as seasons. it's all one huge season.

>> reporter: she rarely talks about what she's done. what she's done.

>> that's it, yeah, that's it.

>> reporter: speaks for itself.

>> okay.

>> reporter: there may be no limit to what can you do if you don't mind who gets the credit.

>> she doesn't take it, does she? really doesn't care about that?

>> yeah.

>> amazing. what a story. bob dotson , thank you so much.