With $40 in her pocket, Jessica Moffitt – a mother of five – thought about her budget last Saturday: $20 for gasoline, $17 in food stamps (just enough to buy dinner), and $20 to split between the layaway bill at the west Wichita Kmart and other necessities.
Moffitt bargained with a Kmart manager to accept $5 – less than the minimum due – even though she was two weeks behind on payments. If she could just have until Dec. 23 to pay off the account, she told the layaway staff, her older boys – ages 9, 6, 5 – and 5-year-old stepson would each get three gifts. The baby, 19 months, would receive two.
Someone overheard Moffitt negotiating. Later, the stranger paid the remaining $70 of Moffitt’s bill.
“It’s amazing that someone just goes and pays off a layaway,” said Moffitt, a 27-year-old Wichita resident.
“Seventy dollars probably isn’t a lot to a lot of people, but me, that’s two weeks of gas, that’s two boxes of diapers – two boxes lasts a month.”
With a tough economy putting financial strain on many Americans this holiday season, “secret Santas” have popped up at Kmart stores across the United States, paying off thousands of layaway accounts for people struggling to make ends meet. So far, donors nationwide have given more than $412,000, a Kmart spokesman said.
Part of that total was spent in Wichita.
As of Wednesday afternoon, 17 anonymous donors had given nearly $12,000 to pay off about 70 layaway accounts for families like the Moffitts, who are buying children’s clothes and toys at Wichita’s Kmart stores.
Moffitt and her 28-year-old husband, Teddy Moffitt, placed about $150 in toys on layaway at Kmart, but a long bout with unemployment, car trouble and other unexpected expenses put the family months behind on bills.
“We’ve been playing catch up a lot,” Jessica Moffitt said. “Trying to get gas and food, and the kids always need something – shoes or pants or a field trip … it’s been tough.”
West Wichita Kmart store manager Stacy Tash, who told the Moffitts their bill had been paid, said the first secret Santa called Dec. 9, asking to pay $900 toward layaway accounts with children’s clothes and toys. A second showed up five days later asking to pay $2,000.
When three more donors showed up Dec. 17 – including one offering $5,000 – Tash and other managers combed through pages of reports looking for customer accounts that met the donors’ criteria.
“I think it’s awesome,” Tash said. “Generally you see a little (giving) around Christmastime but never like this.”
Other generous shoppers are paying for others’ purchases while they wait to check out, Tash said.
Kmart may be the focus of layaway generosity because it is one of the few large discount stores that has offered layaway year-round for about four decades, Salima Yala, Kmart’s division vice president for layaway, said. Under the program, customers make purchases but let the store hold onto their merchandise as they pay it off slowly over several weeks.
It’s up to the individual store managers to decide whether to accept the anonymous gifts on behalf of layaway customers, a Kmart spokesman said.
To Tash, the donations are a matter of generosity, too kind to turn away.
“I can’t see the negative of this,” said Tash, noting that a few of the anonymous donors told her their requests to donate were turned down by other stores. “It’s only positive that someone would be generous enough to pay off the layaways.”
So how will Moffitt spend $70 she earmarked from an upcoming paycheck to settle her layaway bill?
Jessica Moffitt said her boys Tristin, Julien, Corbin, Gabriel and baby Evan will receive a few more packages on Christmas morning, all thanks to Kmart’s secret layaway Santas.
“I wish I knew who they were so I could tell them thank you,” Moffitt said.
“People always say that this will be the worst Christmas season or that the economy is bad. It’s just amazing that more good things happen in the worst of times than in the best.”
Contributing: Associated Press