published Friday, December 16th, 2011

Anonymous donors pay off Kmart layaway accounts

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    In this photo made Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009, Tammy Wyatt, a layaway specialist at Kmart in Conover, N.C., hangs a bag containing supplies that a customer has put on layaway. (AP Photo/Nell Redmond)
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.


OMAHA, Neb. — The young father stood in line at the Kmart layaway counter, wearing dirty clothes and worn-out boots. With him were three small children.

He asked to pay something on his bill because he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford it all before Christmas. Then a mysterious woman stepped up to the counter.

“She told him, ‘No, I’m paying for it,”’ recalled Edna Deppe, assistant manager at the store in Indianapolis. “He just stood there and looked at her and then looked at me and asked if it was a joke. I told him it wasn’t, and that she was going to pay for him. And he just busted out in tears.”

At Kmart stores across the country, Santa seems to be getting some help: Anonymous donors are paying off strangers’ layaway accounts, buying the Christmas gifts other families couldn’t afford, especially toys and children’s clothes set aside by impoverished parents.

Before she left the store Tuesday evening, the Indianapolis woman in her mid-40s had paid the layaway orders for as many as 50 people. On the way out, she handed out $50 bills and paid for two carts of toys for a woman in line at the cash register.

“She was doing it in the memory of her husband who had just died, and she said she wasn’t going to be able to spend it and wanted to make people happy with it,” Deppe said. The woman did not identify herself and only asked people to “remember Ben,” an apparent reference to her husband.

Deppe, who said she’s worked in retail for 40 years, had never seen anything like it.

“It was like an angel fell out of the sky and appeared in our store,” she said.

Most of the donors have done their giving secretly.

Dona Bremser, an Omaha nurse, was at work when a Kmart employee called to tell her that someone had paid off the $70 balance of her layaway account, which held nearly $200 in toys for her 4-year-old son.

“I was speechless,” Bremser said. “It made me believe in Christmas again.”

Dozens of other customers have received similar calls in Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa, Indiana and Montana.

The benefactors generally ask to help families who are squirreling away items for young children. They often pay a portion of the balance, usually all but a few dollars or cents so the layaway order stays in the store’s system.

The phenomenon seems to have begun in Michigan before spreading, Kmart executives said.

“It is honestly being driven by people wanting to do a good deed at this time of the year,” said Salima Yala, Kmart’s division vice president for layaway.

The good Samaritans seem to be visiting mainly Kmart stores, though a Wal-Mart spokesman said a few of his stores in Joplin, Mo., and Chicago have also seen some layaway accounts paid off.

Kmart representatives say they did nothing to instigate the secret Santas or spread word of the generosity. But it’s happening as the company struggles to compete with chains such as Wal-Mart and Target.

Kmart may be the focus of layaway generosity, Yala said, because it is one of the few large discount stores that has offered layaway year-round for about four decades. Under the program, customers can make purchases but let the store hold onto their merchandise as they pay it off slowly over several weeks.

The sad memories of layaways lost prompted at least one good Samaritan to pay off the accounts of five people at an Omaha Kmart, said Karl Graff, the store’s assistant manager.

“She told me that when she was younger, her mom used to set up things on layaway at Kmart, but they rarely were able to pay them off because they just didn’t have the money for it,” Graff said.

He called a woman who had been helped, “and she broke down in tears on the phone with me. She wasn’t sure she was going to be able to pay off their layaway and was afraid their kids weren’t going to have anything for Christmas.”

“You know, 50 bucks may not sound like a lot, but I tell you what, at the right time, it may as well be a million dollars for some people,” Graff said.

Graff’s store alone has seen about a dozen layaway accounts paid off in the last 10 days, with the donors paying $50 to $250 on each account.

“To be honest, in retail, it’s easy to get cynical about the holidays, because you’re kind of grinding it out when everybody else is having family time,” Graff said. “It’s really encouraging to see this side of Christmas again.”

Lori Stearnes of Omaha also benefited from the generosity of a stranger who paid all but $58 of her $250 layaway bill for toys for her four youngest grandchildren.

Stearnes said she and her husband live paycheck to paycheck, but she plans to use the money she was saving for the toys to help pay for someone else’s layaway.

In Missoula, Mont., a man spent more than $1,200 to pay down the balances of six customers whose layaway orders were about to be returned to a Kmart store’s inventory because of late payments.

Store employees reached one beneficiary on her cellphone at Seattle Children’s Hospital, where her son was being treated for an undisclosed illness.

“She was yelling at the nurses, ‘We’re going to have Christmas after all!”’ store manager Josine Murrin said.

A Kmart in Plainfield Township, Mich., called Roberta Carter last week to let her know a man had paid all but 40 cents of her $60 layaway.

Carter, a mother of eight from Grand Rapids, Mich., said she cried upon hearing the news. She and her family have been struggling as she seeks a full-time job.

“My kids will have clothes for Christmas,” she said.

Angie Torres, a stay-at-home mother of four children under the age of 8, was in the Indianapolis Kmart on Tuesday to make a payment on her layaway bill when she learned the woman next to her was paying off her account.

“I started to cry. I couldn’t believe it,” said Torres, who doubted she would have been able to pay off the balance. “I was in disbelief. I hugged her and gave her a kiss.”


Associated Press writers Michael J. Crumb in Des Moines, Iowa; Matt Volz, in Helena, Mont.; and Jeff Karoub in Detroit contributed to this report.

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eeeeeek said...

Couldn't have been a christian that did it. If it had, they wouldn't have been anonymous.

December 16, 2011 at 7:30 a.m.
sla2010 said...

eeeeeek- what a way to turn a tear jerking story into something its not and try to turn it into religion. you have no idea who it was! so keep your religious taunting half thought comments to yourself!!

December 16, 2011 at 8:15 a.m.
Chatt88 said...

You don't have to remain anonymous to be charitable.

December 16, 2011 at 8:36 a.m.
ctfpfan08 said...

sla2010, I agree. At least these people are trying to do something positive and make others feel loved instead of sitting in front of their computer making negative unconstructive comments about people they don't know. Happy Holidays to all!!!

December 16, 2011 at 9:03 a.m.
eeeeeek said...

oh you know if it was a christian.. they'd be Tebowing all over the place

December 16, 2011 at 9:10 a.m.
Chatt88 said...

Merry Christmas

December 16, 2011 at 9:46 a.m.
callison said...

Happy Holidays

December 16, 2011 at 11:16 a.m.
Oz said...

We know it was not an atheist. They spend their money on billboards attacking Christmas.

December 16, 2011 at 1:36 p.m.
lee0943 said...

Glad to see people still have a christmas spirit! Merry Christmas everybody!

December 16, 2011 at 2:04 p.m.
acerigger said...

Christians or not,the gestures are Christ-like.

Merry Christmas!

December 16, 2011 at 2:25 p.m.
Oz said...

Amen... acerigger and Merry Christmas to you.

December 16, 2011 at 2:53 p.m.
sla2010 said...

well said OZ and acerigger!! some people have nothing better to do than to tear others down.

December 16, 2011 at 3:13 p.m.
rolando said...

eeeek and her ilk can't stand to see individuals doing charitable things. They want the government to do it. They would deny the giver any warm feelings they have from making their gift to individuals who really need it. They love to see others in misery.

The donors wish to remain anonymous because otherwise all the professional moochers nationwide would be ringing their phone trying to get something for nothing, to say nothing about the "Save The Chi-i-i-l-l-ldren" conmen.

This is how charity is supposed to work...person to person. Voluntary. With all money/gifts going directly to the needy person and not to some fatcat sitting on his duff and taking 30% of the take for his own use.

Yeah, I am turned off by professional charities...Salvation Army excepted.

December 16, 2011 at 6:43 p.m.
rolando said...

Thank God for Good Samaritans. Thank you each and every one of you billpayers and God Bless You and Keep You...especially Ben.

December 16, 2011 at 6:46 p.m.

acerigger said...

tu_quoque ,I happen to like dogs,even if they're your brothers!

With that just another case of your rude remarks, how would you know anything about being Christ-like?

December 16, 2011 at 8:04 p.m.

My family was moved by this story, so we decided not to hesitate to continue the good will. We called the Highway 58 K-Mart store, asked if we could pay off someone's layaway, and were transferred to a manager named Gail. Gail was adamant about not allowing us to help anyone. She said to give to the salvation army instead. I asked for her last name and she said she did not have one. I asked if she was afraid to tell it to me, and she said no, then hung up. Maybe we can find someone at Target to help.

December 17, 2011 at 10:06 a.m.
Chatt88 said...

Wow, that's pretty crappy, Calico. Kudos for trying though!

December 19, 2011 at 8:35 a.m.
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