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October 30, 2014

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Anonymous donors pay off Kmart layaway accounts

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AP Photo/Dave Weaver

Kevin, center, Jolie, right, and Alex Lewis shop for a family they adopted for Christmas on Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011, at a Kmart in Omaha, Neb. The Lewises had their layaway paid off at Kmart by an unknown good Samaritan.

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Kmart store manager Ted Straub talks Thursday Dec. 15, 2011, in his Omaha, Neb., store. Dozens of Kmart customers across the country have had their layaways paid off by strangers.

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."

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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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  1. Beautiful story. Thank you all.

  2. Brought tears to my eyes, wonderful !

  3. Anywhere in Vegas I can do this? If the Sun can help point us in the right direction, I would volunteer to pay off some accounts and get the ball rolling.

  4. This is wonderful. What an idea. Please Mr. Sun, can you point us in the right direction to do this here.

    This isn't just Sin City. There are a lot of kind and generous people in Las Vegas and we want to help.

  5. People, it's not that hard. Find a K-mart, Wal-mart or Sears store and wait by the layaway area. You can usually spot the people who are in real need. Or enlist the clerk in the area - they can be your secret santa pal. Then step in at the key moment.

  6. What a great story. Just wow!

  7. This is a fantastic story; it's wonderful to see the news reporting some of the many good acts that are committed each day.

    To Bob635: It's likely that many of the good Samaritans in the story are people who earn a solid living, pay substantial taxes (so they already support welfare, unemployment benefits, etc), and are STILL willing to give of their hard-earned income to help others.

    I'm tired of hearing about the 99% and the 1%. The fact is that the 1% (and the 5% and 10% and 15%) give and give and give. They generally invested in education, worked their tails off to be successful, and are contributing citizens who help make the communities we live in better places. They employ people, they pay taxes, and they give to charities.

    Stop piling on and enjoy this story for what it is: a wonderful example of the spirit of Christmas at its best.

  8. It's called "Pay it Forward" and there are many more doing this then you will ever hear about. Not just this time of year but all throughout the year.

    This is a great story and glad to see it being brought to light that there are some very good people in this country.

    Don't be concerned about haters, they will always hate. It brings them their own special joy in life to try to bring down others. It does not work on most of us. ;-)

  9. Joy.

  10. Speechless!

  11. It goes to show that our fellow Americans are damn good people!! Bless those who did this.

    And I agree about KMart being singled out. Unlike greedy Walmart, they kept their layaway program. Layaways are a blessing for most people; it doesn't make you overspend. Big mistake Walmart discontinued this service.

  12. anthemccresident:

    Guess you haven't shopped for toys lately!!! The average toy costs about $20-25. A little baby doll with some accessories costs about $25. A 4 year old can ride a 3-wheeler, probably costs about $50. So for $200, that may be 4-6 gifts. Instead of knocking people, go take a tour of a KMart toy department or ANY toy department in any store.

  13. Nice to see something positive in the news about our neighbors.. But its sad to see that we really are a society depended on other people when they have to ask a newspaper to help them find a K-Mart!!

  14. I believe there are only a few KMarts in the Vegas area; correct me if I'm wrong. The one near Buffalo and Washington does NOT have a layaway program. At least it didn't a couple of years ago. When I asked about it then, I was told it wasn't a "corporate" store and it was up to the manager if he wanted to do layaways.

    If you feel inclined to do something nice like this, call the store first to see if they do indeed have a layaway program. Walmart has layaways this time of year but only for toys and electronics. Ditto Sears. So if you want to pay off someone's 50" plasma TV, bless you!!!! But check here first - maybe someone needs a new TV! lolololol

  15. Sorry I'm so gabby today but another way you can help is check your local Walgreen's or other retailers in the area. The Walgreen's in our area, along with one of the Senior Care agencies, has "Santa for Seniors" - you pick a "wish list" card for a senior living in a nursing home or assisted living facility or even in their own homes and get them what they ask for. It's usually simple things like soap, body lotions/soap, slippers, after shave - that sort of stuff. All financially manageable. $20 wold make someone very happy. But check it out.

    You would not believe how many seniors have no one or no one that cares enough about them. A simple gift of some slipper socks and body lotion/body wash will be treated as if it was worth a million dollars. Don't forget those seniors. After all - we may be in the same position some day.