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

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.

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

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

$120 balance on her Christmas gifts. “There is still good will toward men out there,” she says.

An Indiana child is told to go pick what she wants

In Connecticut, Sonya McDuffie  had dreams of toys under the tree for Christmas, reports Amanda Raus for NBC News. Although she didn’t have enough money, she put a number of items on layaway at Toys R Us in Milford while she tried to save up enough money to pay them off before Christmas.

She was about to let them go back — and pick up the money she had put down on a Mickey Mouse, an Elmo, a doll house and baby dolls.

“I didn’t have enough money to get the items,” McDuffie said. She when she got to the store, the account had a zero balance. The manager and the staff double-checked computer and, indeed, it was paid off.

“I was like, it was paid off?” she remembers. “I was so excited and numb at the same time. We just weren’t going to have toys for

Christmas, maybe only one toy per kid. It was just going to be family getting together, so this was a blessing.”

A Kmart manager exclaims his astonishment

In Pennsylvania, newspaper reporter Tom Knapp writes how a customer wept when a Kmart manager called with the good news. The customer had put toys on layaway but couldn’t afford to pay off the balance. It looked like she wouldn’t have them in time for her children on Christmas morning.

“Then a gentleman came in a few days ago,” store manager Dean Paul said. “He asked one of my assistant managers … to find a layaway of children’s toys.”

The balance on the purchase was $225, Paul said, and the anonymous stranger promptly put $200 on the counter.

“We called the customer to notify her. She was very, very happy. She was in tears,” Paul said said. “She came in to pay off the balance and take home the toys in time for Christmas.”

In Florida, Emily Roach of the Palm Beach Post newspaper reported a man had put town the last money he owned for Christmas toys and clothes for his five children, ages 16, 13, 12, 9 and 6. Cesar Pereira “spent his last paycheck on a $200 payment for the layaway bundle,

but didn’t know where the last $200 would come from after he lost his landscaping job two weeks ago.

A California recipient hugs the store manager

“I was excited. I couldn’t believe it,” Pereira told Roach upon learning the balance had been paid by a total stranger. “We were really in a tight jam.”

Anonymous donors brought checks totaling $15,000 to the Lantana, Florida, Kmart at about 1 p.m. Tuesday, according to manager Lisa Bowman. Together, they sifted through layaway accounts for hours, paying off the ones with toys, clothes and other gift items.

When one woman came to release two toys from her layaway order because she couldn’t afford them, Bowman said, “You’re not returning anything.”

Learner guitars, Mario Kart games, clothes and cameras all came out of Kmart layaway storage, compliments of the Secret Santas.

“It’s very exciting to see,” Lake Park Kmart manager Scott Reuter told the newspaper.

He said most of the Secret Santas aren’t wealthy. 

No, he marveled, “The people that come in are just average people.”

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