Layaway Angels

No crime this time... Just a tale of generous hearts. Were you one? It's never too late.

It's been a chore trying to figure out an uplifting topic for this Christmas-time column. In a space usually dedicated to the negative aspects of human nature I can think of no better time to highlight the positive.

I'm always on the lookout for trends in crime -- troubled veterans returning home and becoming entangled in the justice system, questionable prisoner releases from overcrowded institutions and the recent reported decline in state's use of the death penalty to name just a few.

But the latest trend I spotted is as far away from crime as I can imagine -- and since it is so positively pervasively Christmas-y in its effect -- I think it earns a mention.

Across the country a small army of Americans have been quietly helping the less fortunate feel the true meaning of Christmas. These soldiers arrive without being asked and give even though no one makes a request.

They silently marched into their local Kmart or Walmart and headed for the saddest place in the store -- the layaway counter. With no desire to be acknowledged for their gifts, they paid off the accounts of total strangers. Startled clerks obliged by looking up layaways that included children's toys and clothing so as to make sure two recipients were served -- the kids, of course, but also the struggling parent who had carefully picked out the meager treasures weeks earlier and had been dutifully paying on the presents ever since.

Sadder than having to place gifts on layaway is the fact that many times the gift-givers run out of time and money and loose both their past payments and the gifts they had placed on hold.

The Denver Post's story on these anonymous Layaway Angels quoted one as saying, "So much is on the news about class warfare ...We need to do stuff that brings people together."

Repeat that: "We need to do stuff that brings people together." In this time of terrible economic realities, truer words were never spoken. And when I read that woman's simple statement, I realized countless others just like her, in places across the country, had come to the same conclusion.

A map of "Layaway Santas" sightings complied by the Associated Press showed that ten days before Christmas such spontaneous generosity had already occurred in more than a dozen states, including the nation's unemployment hot spots like California, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Illinois.

From Florida and the Carolinas to Washington state, Idaho and Iowa there were caring Americans who gave their neighbors a holiday to remember. And more than just material goods, like a warm coat or a pair of winter boots, these angels gave goodwill and that lasts longer than a box of Christmas chocolates.

Among the widely reported acts of kindness: in Missoula, Montana, Kmart staffers were stunned when a single donor plunked down $1,200 to clear the accounts of six layaway customers who were about to forfeit their items because of late payments.

When Lori Stearnes of Omaha got a call from her Kmart she thought it was a joke when told the items she'd been paying on for her seven grandchildren were ready for pick up. She plans to pay it forward and put down her money on another buyer's layaway. "With all the things going on the world, just to have someone do that is so -- I don't know." Stearns said, "It's hard to put into words."

At a Kmart in Indianapolis, a young father in dirty work clothes accompanied by three little kids was carefully counting out bills to go toward his layaway and worrying that he might not be able to pay it off. When a Good Samaritan stepped forward and paid the balance, assistant manager Edna Deppe said, "He just busted into tears." The anonymous woman then paid off layaways for as many as 50 other people and said, "She was doing it in the memory of her husband who had just died .... (she) wanted to make people happy," Deppe said. All she asked in return was that everyone "Remember Ben."

Something tells me that AP map with its red dots denoting each act of kindness got even more pockmarked as the news of Layaway Angels spread and the days ticked off closer to Christmas.

At a time when our elected politicians display little ability to "do stuff that brings people together," I'm heartened that Americans stepped forward to do for each other. Perhaps it comes from the fact that so many of us are a paycheck or two away from needing to rely on help from others too.

My cynical mind tells me this trend may have started as a clever PR stunt by retailers. Hey, it's a great way to clear layaway accounts and it's a surefire media draw to announce an angel has visited a store. But, even if this is all a concocted scenario realize there are Americans who will be happier on Christmas morning than they otherwise would have been.

As you read this you may think it's too late to participate. It isn't. There are plenty of layaways still sitting on store shelves near you. Just pick up the phone and make a call to your local Target, Sears, Kmart or Walmart. Spreading joy is timeless.

Diane Dimond may be reached through her web site: Her latest book, "Cirque Du Salahi" - the inside and untold story of the so-called White House Gate Crashers - is available through