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

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In California, man paid $9,800 on 63 accounts at the Hayward Kmart, then dropped the remaining $200 in a Salvation Army kettle as he left. 

With the economic slowdown, stores have reported that more and more layaway accounts go unredeemed as families hit by layoffs and cutbacks cannot finish off their tab. That’s where the Secret Santas come in. Most pay the balance due, leaving a penny or so owed – so the account remains active in the store’s computer system. Then the customer gets a reminder phone call to come pick up their stuff and pay off the balance … of 1 cent.

“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.

Items in layaway at a Michigan Kmart

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Shannelle Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Sears Holdings Corp., which owns Kmart’s 1,300 stores said they know of $412,000 donated so far nationwide — each time by anonymous people who swear the clerks to secrecy and have a little fun picking out random accounts that appear to be past due and include children’s items.

Assistant store manager Darlene Beverly called some of the recipients. “Some scream, some holler — with joy, of course,” she said. “They cry big time.”

When it happened at her store, “it was just a give-you-goosebumps kind of feeling,” said store manager Katie Cook.

 Wal-Mart spokeswoman Dianna Gee says layaway angels are hitting its stores “from coast to coast.”

Generosity can be contagious, says Lisa Dietlin, a Chicago philanthropic adviser. After years of austerity, people are “knocking the economy in the eye and deciding not to be stingy this year,” she says.

Melissa Atwood, who lives in Michigan City, Ind., got a call Monday from a La Porte, Ind., Kmart notifying her that someone had paid the

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Rob Kerby
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