Layaway angels

Alice Pilkerton, 36, of Shady Side, left, came to K-Mart with her daughters, Sally Pilkerton, 21 months, and Lucy Pilkerton, 3 1/2 years, lower right, and sister Terry Trimmer, 40, of Annapolis, center, to pick up the box of gifts Terry had put away on lay-away for her nieces. Terry was one of the lucky lay-away customers who discovered that the $126 balance owed on her Christmas gifts was paid by a "Lay-away Angel." (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / December 22, 2011)

Robin Walker, unable to sleep, called up her online layaway account in the middle of the night, ready to make some grim choices about which presents her grandchildren wouldn't get.

The answer, she feared, was most of them.

She opened the first account, shocked to see the balance read "$1." A computer glitch, she suspected.

But when the second account said the same thing, as did the one after that, she started laughing. Someone, she began to realize, had paid all five of her layaway accounts down to a dollar. She just sat there, in the dark, flabbergasted and growing goose bumps.

"I had gone in there to decide what I wasn't able to give them, and here I am, able to give them everything because of this person who rescued my Christmas," says Walker, a 53-year-old Kmart worker who lives in Prince Frederick, sniffing back tears.

"You can't help but be joyful when you know there are people in the world doing stuff like this for people that they don't even know."

Across the country, anonymous kindhearted strangers have been paying off layaway accounts this season — doing it with such frequency that folks have given them a name, "layaway angels." The faceless seraph who smiled upon Walker this week is an angel of the highest order, giving $20,543 to the Prince Frederick Kmart to buy the holiday gifts of about 175 Marylanders — the single largest donation in the country.

Connie Timtishin, who manages that store, is abiding by the angel's wish for anonymity. She won't say if he's old or young, slim or chubby, clean-shaven or sporting a snow-white beard. Just that he came in alone, he wanted to pay for accounts that included toys and clothes and he used a credit card.

"He said he had been blessed," she said. "He's a gentleman."

As the calendar ticks down to Christmas, layaway angels nationwide have offered about $450,000 to cover layaway gifts at Kmart stores, with Michigan, Florida and Maryland reporting the most donations, officials say. Though angels seem to gravitate toward Kmart, the practice has also been documented at Wal-Mart and other stores with layaway, where people can pick out presents, give them to the store to hold and then pay for them when — and if — they find the money.

News reports of the angels' work seems to spark even more of it.

It happened first at a store in Michigan, says Shannelle Armstrong, director of publications relations at Sears Holdings, Kmart's parent company. And then it happened again, over and over, dozens of times. A Las Vegas angel paid $14,000. A California one, $20,000. Many, many others wrote smaller checks.

Kmart was so surprised by the trend, Armstrong says, that executives flew back to the office from vacation just to figure out how to handle it. Now they've gotten so many calls about the phenomenon that they've set up a dedicated telephone number, a sort of angel hotline.

"There's a truly generous spirit in our country," Armstrong says. "I was somewhat stunned."

At a Kmart in Dundalk, three angels paid off 28 accounts, more than $4,000, to buy bicycles, Barbies, art supplies and children's clothes, says store manager Gina Montalto, who thinks the most recent angel looked important, like someone who might be an executive.

"He just said he heard about the layaway angels and said he would like to help individuals who were behind," she explains. "And he could cover any layaway and would like to see a mix of toys and children's clothing."

He paid about $2,400.

After the donor with $20,000 to spare descended on the Prince Frederick store, breaking the news to the folks he helped was largely the job of associate Sha-Ron Parran. Earlier this week, she spent the better part of two days doing nothing but dialing phone numbers and saying, in her soft-spoken way, "You've been hit by the layaway angel."

Hearing those words, some people screamed, others cried. Some said nothing at all, leaving so much silence on the other end of the line that Parran had to say, "Hello? Hello?"