It’s almost Christmas and stores are flooded with shoppers looking for those final stocking stuffers, toys, and gifts. For some American families, this Christmas will be unforgettable thanks to the largess of anonymous, deep-pocketed angels paying for layaway items of other customers at major retailers.
In Mechanicsburg, PA, an unknown male customer paid $50,000 at Walmart to cover 100 layaway accounts. Two Walmart stores in separate Florida towns received checks for $59,000 and $51,000 from possibly the same donor to cover hundreds of layaway accounts. Former NFL quarterback Tim Tebow surprised Walmart shoppers in Florida by paying off their layaway plans which was a welcomed blessing for single mothers and out of work customers.
This Christmas thousands of shocked customers are delighted to learn that they can pick up their layaways, no more payments needed. This is perhaps the biggest blessing, because customers who utilize layaway are often low-income or are struggling financially. Unable to purchase toys or items at one-time they utilize this services to spread out their purchases over multiple payments. However, those final payments can be difficult to make and the plans are cancelled. Sometimes without getting your money back.
Layaway angels are a trend that has taken off over the past couple of years. However, clandestine giving is not just for the likes of Montgomery Burns or Daddy Warbucks. Lately, collections of angels are formalizing their giving and opening it up to smaller donors whose collective giving power translates into big impact.
What’s at work is not just holiday cheer but another facet of the American spirit of giving.
Stacey Heyward hugs Lee Karchawer, founder of "Pay Away The Layaway," after the group used crowdsourced funds to pay off her layaway plan at a Kmart store in the Bronx borough of New York, Dec. 12th, 2014.
The trend seems seems to have picked up steam in 2011 when the story of one woman who began anonymously paying off plans hit the national press and went viral. Her story inspired others.
At Kmart, strangers have paid more than $1.5 million in other's layaway contracts since 2011, when the store first began keeping track. Wal-Mart says it sees thousands of layaway angel episodes each year. Toys 'R Us saw 600 of these in 2013, some for plans as small as $100, others into the thousands.
Unlike donating to charity, the results and rewards are immediate and visceral.
"It couldn't come at a better time. I just had a fire and lost everything," said teacher Stacey Heyward, wiping away tears from her eyes. She and Karchawer hugged. The layaway angels took care of the remaining $200 balance on her layaway plan, which included Play-Doh, dolls for her daughter, and tools for her son who had recently graduated from technical college.
Layaway angels are a slice of American generosity that is especially unique. Americans are the most generous nation on the planet. We give away way over $300 billion each year to charity for sundry causes as diverse as college scholarships and civil rights.
Following the commercialism of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday, Americans donated $45.7 billion on December 2 for the #GivingTuesday campaign. There is a spirit of generosity that prompts us to give –undirected by government – to see problems alleviated and change in society from education to poverty to environmentalism. It’s the direct result of private action and private initiative. And American generosity enjoys a storied history that is tied to the entrepreneurial, can-do spirit in our nation.
Some of this generosity is captured when we file taxes and claim a tax deduction, but most tax filers don’t itemize their deductions including the charitable deduction, so the full impact of charitable giving in our nation isn’t even quantified. From tithes in the offering bucket to paying off the layaway plans of complete strangers, there is so much giving that goes unaccounted for but is critical for social cohesion and good will across our communities.
Let’s hope to see more Secret Santas and “layaway angels” before Christmas and afterward. They remind us that we don’t need wealth to be redistributed by Washington through central direction and coordination. Philanthropy achieves a level of equalization that doesn’t foster dependency on the part of recipients or resentment on the part of givers.