“Layaway angels” have alighted in Oak Lawn, bringing Christmas cheer to local residents.
The nationwide phenomenon of anonymous donors paying off strangers’ layaway balances has spread to Oak Lawn’s two Kmart stores. Since Saturday, angels have paid the bills on toys and clothing for 15 people.
“When I first heard about it, I thought it was a joke until I saw it on the news,” said Karen Steinert, an assistant manager for the “We had a lady come in today who paid off two people’s layaways.”
The charitable movement appears to have started in Grand Rapids, MI, according to news reports, where a woman wishing to remain anonymous paid off the layaway balances of three accounts at the Grand Rapids Kmart.
Steinert suspects many of the store's layaway customers are struggling to survive in the down economy.
“There are so many people without jobs. Everyone knows someone out of work,” Steinert said. “There are nice people out there who say that someone deserves a good Christmas.”
In her eight years of working in the layaway department at the Cicero Avenue Kmart, Mary Sheridan says she’s never seen anything like the layaway angels.
Waiting on a woman who had to decide between canceling one of her toy layaways to pay off the other, another woman stepped forward and made the payment for her.
“The women were just so excited. They made each other’s day,” Sheridan said. “Between this time, the woman will get her paycheck and be able to pay off the other layaway.”
Sheridan’s colleague, Elaine Hathaway, has been charged with calling some very surprised shoppers.
“One of the numbers was disconnected,” Hathaway said, “but the one person I did get in touch with, I told her we had a layaway angel in the store. She couldn’t believe it.”
The secret angels have mostly been appearing at Kmart stores across the country, but the news media have reported angels paying off layaway accounts at Wal-Mart stores as well. And in Orland Park, a gentleman paid off the .
Vern Miller, believes Kmart has received the bulk of the generosity because of its open layaway policy. Other stores will only allow electronics and certain products to be put on layaway, Miller said, while Kmart allows most merchandise except for clearance items and cleaning supplies.
“There have been a lot of tears of joy, especially when people come in and find out it’s been paid for,” Miller said. “People will come into the store and go to the front of line, and pay the next three layaways. It continues to grow.”
An offshoot of the Great Depression, layaway allowed customers to purchase merchandise over time in small amounts until the full balance was paid. Some stores discontinued the practice because of the ubiquity of credit cards, but layaway has become popular again because of the economic recession.
The mystery angels have visited so many Kmart stores that the corporate chain has asked its local stores to keep lists of account balances and items on layaway.
“Some of these people may be a little late with their payments,” Steinert said. “We’re also looking to see who has toys on layaway, figuring they are Christmas gifts.”
Layaway contracts at Kmart are for eight weeks. For purchases over $300 a 12-week option is available. Many customers started putting merchandise for Christmas on layaway weeks ago.
Prospective angels can tell the Oak Lawn’s Kmart layaway associates how much they wish to spend. The store does not divulge the identities or angels or recipients.
Hathaway remembers a Christmas several years ago when she was out of work and couldn’t afford to buy presents for her young children. Someone at her children’s school bought them gifts.
“It helped me out a lot, and I was very grateful,” she said. “This is something like that experience. I hope people come in and pay it forward.”
Follow the links to read more Patch coverage about layaway angels on and across the country.