NBC's George Lewis reports that generous people, dubbed "layaway angels," have been paying off families' layaway accounts at stores likes K-Mart and Walmart, in an effort to spread some cheer this holiday season.
They've been called layaway angels, Secret Santas, good Samaritans and even miracle workers. Whatever you call them, the Frank Capra-esque anonymous donors who have been paying off strangers' layaway bills around the country seem to be touching even the Grinchiest of hearts.
This year's unexpected holiday phenomena of altruism is moving even those inured to pleas for donations from food banks, homeless shelters and other charities to drive to the nearest Kmart or Walmart or Toys R Us and pay off someone’s bill. Many others are moved to tears just hearing reports of these Christmas random acts of kindness. A Dec. 9 story that appeared on mnsbc.com about one of the first layaway angels Michigan was one of the most popular stories of the month.
"It's the holiday season and people want to be happy and yet there's so much negative news out there," says Elizabeth Lombardo, a clinical psychologist and author of "A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness." "You have the horrible recession and all the financial stress. And this story rises above it. People are dying to hear good news so when they hear something genuine, they jump on it."
While the trend appears to have started in Michigan, layaway angels have popped up in South Carolina, California, Nebraska, Montana, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Connecticut, Delaware and Nevada and the number of donors -- and states involved -- appears to be growing.
According to one news report, more than 1,000 layaway accounts adding up to more than $400,000 have been paid off by anonymous angels at Kmart alone, with some people donating thousands of dollars. Being a layaway angel, it seems, is contagious.
"It's the Santa effect, really," says Lombardo. "It's exciting and motivating and when people hear about it, they want to be in on it, too."
Not only are people getting in on it, they’re doing it anonymously. One Indianapolis woman who paid who paid off the layaways of 50 people, didn’t give her name but said she was doing it in memory of her husband who had just died and only asked people to “remember Ben.” Another, who paid off the layaways of three people in Michigan, simply signed their layaway slips “Happy Holidays from a friend.”
"It's secretive so it's a little more exciting," says Lombardo. "People think, 'nobody knows I'm doing this.' It's fun to play Santa. And Santa doesn't just give rich kids presents. These people want kids to be able to have a Christmas regardless of what their parents can afford. To be able to be a part of that is very powerful."
Another allure is the autonomy. Instead of donating to one of thousands of charities asking for help this time of year, layaway angels are deciding to help individuals of their own choosing, usually with toys and clothing purchases for children.
"They've decided on their own that this is what they want to do as opposed to being asked," she says. "In general, if we come up with an idea ourselves, we own it more. We're more excited and passionate about it. When we come up with the idea without being asked, it's more positive for us. It's not just helping the recipient, but it's helping the giver be happier."
While at least one expert has suggested that the layaway angel trend could have started as a "strategic public-relations stunt," Lombardo says it doesn't really matter.
"If it's a marketing ploy, I think it's a great one," she says. "There's sometimes a lot of cynicism and negativity out there. But this is promoting and glorifying helping out others. Even if people can't be a layaway angel, they might help out in other ways, like holding the door open for someone. When we get it in our minds that we want to help others, we look for ways to do it. There's a ripple effect. That's the beauty of it."
Mary Chapin put some toys on layaway at a Michigan K-Mart for her son David and was hoping to pay off the $200 balance the week before Christmas. Then she got a call that changed all that. WOOD's Dani Carlson reports.