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Anonymous 'layaway angels' pay off yule bills

Santara Dudley chipped away at a $400 layaway bill at Kmart in Monroeville for more than a month.

Santara Dudley chipped away at a $400 layaway bill at Kmart in Monroeville for more than a month.

Dudley, 22, of Turtle Creek, a resident-care aide at a nursing home, paid what she could, when she could, on the balance she owed for toys and clothing for her daughter, 5, and son, 2, for Christmas.

On Monday afternoon, a Kmart assistant manager told Dudley by phone that a man she had never met had paid off the layaway with $139.73.

He followed the lead of a growing number of so-called layaway angels who are trying to make Christmas brighter for children and their financially strapped parents.

"I'm really tearing up," Dudley said of the donor's generosity. "I've been working like crazy to get everything together for me and my kids."

Anonymous donations during the holidays are not new, but stores are noting a marked increase in anonymous layaway payments this year.

Experiences or the economy can motivate donors, said Leslie Lenkowsky, a professor in the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University in Indianapolis. Anonymity puts less pressure on recipients to repay donors, who hope recipients instead will help someone else.

Some donors are moved to action by reports of others' charitable payments.

Donors paid an estimated $100,000 for Kmart layaways nationwide since Dec. 6, said a spokesman for Kmart, which is owned by Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based Sears Holdings Corp.

Several at the Monroeville Kmart gave money in memory of deceased loved ones. Donors made 13 anonymous layaway payoffs or partial payments since Saturday, on past-due accounts about to be canceled, manager Craig Judy said.

Layaways allow customers to hold merchandise at the store with down payments and pay for it over time. The option fell by the wayside until a few years ago, when some retailers offered it to drive business. Kmart officials say the store has offered layaway consistently for 40 years.

Its competitor, Wal-Mart, stopped layaways in 2005 but reinstated them this year from Oct. 17 to Dec. 16 for electronics and toys, said Kayla Whaling, a spokeswoman for Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Anonymous layaway payments are on the upswing at Wal-Marts nationwide, although none of the Pittsburgh area stores reported any, Whaling said.

Dudley's benefactor, a North Huntingdon man, told the Tribune-Review he wanted to be known only as Steve. He said he and his wife used to put gifts on layaway at Kmart for their children, now adults. "I always try to do something nice for Christmas for somebody," he said.