Across America, "Secret Santas" paying off families' layaway balances

It's sweeping America -- total strangers asking store managers to apply $50, $100, $500 and even larger amounts to past-due toy and children's clothing accounts

A generosity phenomenon is spreading like wildfire this Christmas season – “Secret Santas” walking up to layaway counters and paying off balances owed by total strangers.

A Michigan family learns of their good fortune

The phenomenon may have begun in Michigan where a woman paid off three layaway charges at a Grand Rapids Kmart. Media coverage prompted a slew of copycat givers. Then it spread to stores in Nebraska, Iowa, Indiana, Montana and beyond, according to Kmart executives.

Usually the benefactor swears clerks to secrecy, then asks them to find layaway accounts where children’s clothing or toys have been put aside – usually with the customer paying a little each month, then showing up just before Christmas with final payment.

Lori Stearnes thought it was a prank when an Omaha Kmart clerk called to tell her that a Secret Santa had paid off the $58 owed on her account, according to USA Today. ”It was a shock, of course, and then it just made me feel warm and fuzzy,” she says. She picked up the

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toys, then used the money she had set aside for the gifts to pay off two other layaway accounts.

A canceled layaway bill in Michigan

In Alabama, a man walked into a Haleyville Walmart and donated $11,000 to pay the accounts of 75 families. In Indiana, more than 15 layaway accounts totaling almost $4,000 were paid by strangers at a Kmart in Lafayette. 

In Charles City, Iowa, a man gave the service desk staff $500 to settle layaway accounts — and told employees he was originally from the area and wanted to help people less fortunate than he is.

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Rob Kerby
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