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Christmas angels at the layaway counter

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image A child’s bicycle stands ready to be a Christmas present at the Walmart store in Wimauma. Mitch Traphagen Photo

A trend in anonymously paying off layaway accounts has swept the nation.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

WIMAUMA — Ivette is a young woman of poise and grace with a warm and beautiful smile. She works behind the counter of the layaway desk at Walmart in Wimauma. A handful of times over the past weekend, she was also Santa’s helper.

Betty doesn’t look anything like Santa Claus. She is 40-ish and not wealthy, and she has her own bills to pay. But on Sunday morning, she was standing at the Walmart layaway counter in the hopes of paying someone else’s bill. Someone she would never meet, nor would she ever know his or her name.

“I would like to pay off someone’s layaway account,” Betty said to Ivette.

Ivette didn’t register surprise and simply asked, “How much do you want to spend?” as she pulled out a big accordion file of layaway accounts.

It wasn’t her first request like that. Later she told Betty that between Saturday and Sunday, five people had come in to pay off someone else’s layaway accounts. But that she had heard it before didn’t diminish the impact. Ivette was touched, and after Betty apologized for potentially adding a headache to her day, she told her, “No, thank you for doing this.”  Betty had the impression that Ivette was honored to take part in it; she told her that it really touches her heart when people come in to do that.

Betty told Ivette she would like to spend between $50 and $70. And, if possible, she would like it to be an account with a child’s bicycle on layaway. Ivette first found an account with toys that showed $41.21 still owed on it. But when she checked on the register, it turned out that someone had already paid that account off. She then found another account for a doll — that had just over $30 remaining on it. Betty said she would pay for that one but would like another one as well.
Ivette then found one for a child’s bicycle — it had $74.15 remaining on it.

Unbeknownst to Betty, Sunday was the last day for layaway customers to pay on their accounts at Walmart. If not paid in full by that day, any money they had put down would be refunded to them, minus a service fee, and the merchandise, originally intended as gifts, would be returned to the shelves.

As Betty pulled out four $20 bills, Ivette told her that when she calls the people to tell them their account has been paid by someone, sometimes they start to cry.

It is impossible to know with certainty but the bicycle that Betty paid for may not have made it to a child for Christmas. When there is rent to pay, food to buy, and utilities to keep current, $74.15 can be a fortune well beyond reach. Sunday was the final day that layaway accounts could be paid for Christmas pickup at Walmart, so time was running out.

Layaway is a remnant of the Great Depression, a means for people to make incremental payments on items they can’t afford at the moment — items such as toys for Christmas gifts. The merchandise is held by the store until the account is paid off and although typically there are small service fees involved, there is generally no interest accumulated. Until the economy fell into a recession, layaway had all but disappeared as most people simply used credit cards to make such purchases.

Kmart stores still offer layaway year around, but it has only been this year that Walmart has reinstated the practice on toys and electronics for the Christmas season.

This year, a trend in anonymously paying off layaway accounts has swept the nation, with some news agencies reporting that it began when a woman in Grand Rapids, Michigan, paid off the layaway bills for three families at the beginning of December. When told of this, Betty said, “With that one act, someone in Michigan started something like this. It feels good to be able to gift someone’s gift. It feels like Christmas — the feeling is awesome, to be able to provide comfort to someone else.”

They are called “secret Santas” and “layaway angels” and across the country, people like Betty are quietly turning Christmas into a miracle for thousands of families. Arguments about the commercialization of the religious holiday mean little to a child without gifts under a tree — or even a tree itself. Such arguments also ring hollow to parents who are struggling financially yet want to provide something for their children on Christmas. For Betty, paying off the layaway account for someone she’ll never know isn’t about judgment of financial woes, it is simply to help another person, someone perhaps less fortunate than herself, during the season of giving.

On Monday, the Chronicle-Telegram newspaper of Elyria, Ohio, reported that one man anonymously paid off the accounts of 23 families, totaling nearly $8,800. Earlier, The Associated Press reported that an anonymous donor in California spent $9,800 to pay off the accounts of 63 families, and a man in Montana paid off the accounts of six customers who were behind in their payments and had been told their items would be returned to the store inventory. In between are uncounted reports of people anonymously paying $50 or $100 to settle tabs for the Christmas wishes of children they’ll never meet.

And it’s not just layaway accounts. One Florida Walmart has reported that an anonymous man purchased 25 $100 gift cards to be distributed to people who appeared to need them. When contacted, all donors said the same thing as Betty: they just want to help.

The doll began to haunt her. When Betty was told that Sunday was the last day Christmas layaway accounts could be paid, she drove back to the Walmart in Wimauma, prepared to pay the $30 bill she had passed up to pay for the bicycle. Ivette told her the account had been paid off and Walmart had already contacted everyone else who still had remaining balances.

She also told Betty that she talked to the woman who had the bicycle on layaway. The woman was shocked, Ivette said, and asked for Betty’s name so she could do something for her or thank her somehow. Ivette told the woman it was an anonymous gift and she didn’t know her name. And neither do you as Betty, of course, is not her real name.

Ivette said the woman then began to cry.

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