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Published December 19, 2013, 01:04 PM

Anonymous strangers pay it forward in Grand Forks, around nation by paying off layaway accounts

Steve Gackle, the general manager at the Grand Forks Kmart, hears a lot of heartwarming stories this time of year. A woman came in recently to pay off the layaway account of a needy family she’d never met, he said. Last year, it was her family that benefited from a layaway Santa, he said.

By: Tu-Uyen Tran, Grand Forks Herald

Steve Gackle, the general manager at the Grand Forks Kmart, hears a lot of heartwarming stories this time of year.

A woman came in recently to pay off the layaway account of a needy family she'd never met, he said. Last year, it was her family that benefited from a layaway Santa, he said.

"She said 'I was unemployed at that time, and it made a difference in my life. This year, I thought I'd come back and help someone else,'" he said.

Another woman came in with her teenage daughter to pay it forward, he said. She lost her husband last year and the community really helped her daughter get through the ordeal of losing a father, he said.

Heidi Audette, the human resources manager who sometimes works in the layaway department, said donors often ask for a family with children. And, she said, they always insist on anonymity.

The trend began nationwide a few years ago when the Associated Press reported on one such layaway Santa in Indianapolis. The anonymous woman, the story said, paid off as many as 50 layaway accounts in memory of her husband who had just died.

The first layaway Santas appeared in Grand Forks that year as well, citing the AP story they'd read.

Three years later, the inspiring trend continues to inspire here and around the nation.

Parade magazine reports that, since 2011, Kmart has seen more than $1.5 million in donations to layaway accounts, in which merchandise is set aside for payment over time.

Donors have now also spreading their Christmas joy at Toys R Us and Walmart, the magazine said.

Finding need

Here's how it works at Kmart, according to Gackle and Audette: A donor would tell a store employee they want to pay the layaway account of someone in need. Kmart staff would go in the storage room and look for accounts that match what the donor is looking for, usually a young family.

For example, Audette said, a man came in last year asking to pay for just boots and coats.

Based on the kinds of items in the layaway account, it's pretty clear that some families need help more than others, Gackle said.

Donors can pay for the whole account or parts of one, with donations ranging from $30 to $240, he said.

One thing donors can't do is pay off the entire account because then the goods are taken out of Kmart's computer system, Audette said, so they often leave just a cent.

Last year was a peak year for the Grand Forks Kmart, according to Gackle. He said it got to a point where there weren't any layaways that looked like they came from needy families, and Kmart staff had to direct donors to local charities.

So far this year, Gackle said he's seen 30 to 40 layaway Santas and his staff may have seen more. Interviewed by the Herald at this time three years ago, he said then that he'd seen 13.

Still, with a week to go before Christmas, there remain a few layaway accounts of families that appear to be in need.

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