Layaway Angels get satisfaction of helping those less fortunate
They're being called Layaway Angels.
Anonymous donors walk into a store, typically a Kmart, and pay off a stranger's layaway bill.
It's been happening all over the country this Christmas season, and most recently, this weekend in Bemidji.
"They don't ask for recognition," said Tim Hayen, manager at the Bemidji Kmart. "Some of these layaways probably would have been returned to stock."
Hayen has worked for Kmart for 33 years, including six in Bemidji. He's never seen the Secret Santa spirit spread in quite this way.
"I've heard of this in years past but never this widespread," he said. "We refer to these people as our Layaway Angels."
Imagine the surprise of a parent receiving a call from a Kmart employee informing him or her that a layaway order is ready to be picked up - and the bill has been paid.
"A lot of disbelief," said Hayen, adding those receiving the calls usually are stunned into silent disbelief. "They haven't heard of people doing this."
In the past few days, six people have walked into the Bemidji store, paying off more than $1,000 in layaway bills.
The store manager said one man came in to pay off two strangers' bills and left. But then the man returned and paid off another.
Then there was a couple who set a $100 limit on their layaway gift, but doubled it once they were in the store.
"It was their Christmas present to each other," said Hayen, who said the donors want to remain anonymous.
"They're not getting anything in return except the satisfaction of doing it," Hayen said. "Nowadays, everybody wants recognition."
The Bemidji store has several hundred orders set aside on layaway. On Monday, about 50 were in danger of being returned to the shelves for lack of payment.
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, according to the Associated Press.
Layaway angels are popping up across the country as anonymous donors pay the bills of people in Nebraska, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa and Montana.
Last week, more donors came forward in Minnesota and North Dakota.
The Grand Forks Herald reported on acts of kindness at a Kmart there. The store manager, Steve Gackle, said 13 accounts were paid off at different times, three by a family and 10 others by two men who came in at the same time but didn't know each other.
"One said 'life's been very fortunate for me,' and said he read about the other cases in the news," Gackle said. "The other overheard and said 'that's why I'm here, too.'"
On Dec. 10, a married couple and their teenage daughter stopped at the Grand Forks location and asked to help families who are having trouble paying for items for young children or basic warm weather clothing. Each family member picked an account to benefit.
"They wanted to do it just because they thought it was a good thing to do," Gackle said.
One anonymous donor, a small business owner in Bemidji. told The Pioneer he decided to donate $500 to the cause after reading a story in the newspaper.
He said Monday he hopes a few more businesses will catch the Christmas spirit and help out someone struggling to buy gifts for the holiday.
"This is the first time I've been involved where someone wanted to come in and pay off someone's layaway," Hayen, the local Kmart manager, said.
The store keeps a report of active layaway accounts, and managers can explain outstanding bills to donors, who never learn the name of the recipients. There are about 50 orders in danger of being restocked, Hayen said.
"With times being tough, money being tight, here's over $1,000 people found in their pockets (to help others)," he said. "That's amazing."