'Layaway angels' surprise Kmart back-to-school shoppers in Dundalk

"This is a blessing." Dundalk Kmart shoppers surprised by layaway angels

A group of customers gathered Saturday morning near the jewelry counter at Kmart on North Point Boulevard, wondering whether it would be their lucky day.

The back-to-school shoppers had received phone calls from a store employee on Friday, who told them they could enter a raffle drawing for a chance to get their layaway bills paid off.

Instead, the crowd broke into smiles — and some tears — when they learned they were all in luck. Donations from a national organization called Pay Away the Layaway had just paid off everyone's layaway orders, announced volunteer Chris Strub.

"Thank you!" a woman exclaimed. "Thank you!"

The New York-based charity, founded in 2011, has gained national attention for sending "layaway angels" to stores throughout the country to pay for holiday toys and other gifts for children.

But now the organization's volunteers want to also help people buy school supplies — and Baltimore was the first place they picked to do it. They paid for about 25 families' orders at the Dundalk-area store, totaling roughly $3,000, for a new project called Layaway for Learning.

"The struggles that these individuals may have during the holiday season are not unique to Christmas," said Strub, a Greenville, S.C. resident. "This really gives us a great opportunity to bring that Christmastime magic into the end of the summer, help out some families, and really raise awareness for the plight of folks with layaways."

Shelley Ginn, 43, choked up when she talked about having her order paid off. Family finances have been tight, the Essex resident said.

"It was an absolute, terrific surprise," said Ginn, who had placed more than $200 worth of back-to-school clothes on layaway for her 12-year-old daughter. "I usually don't have any luck."

Tawanda Brown of Cedonia opened a cardboard box filled with khaki uniform pants, binders and others items for her children.

"Wow," she said. "This is a blessing."

Annette Harrison, 50, had bought school uniforms for her granddaughter. She smiled and said she knew how she would spend the money she saved Saturday — to pay for another layaway order she had already placed for Christmas gifts.

Store manager Mark Weatherby said the Kmart on North Point Boulevard gets "a lot of layaways."

"The sad part is when you see a layaway with school supplies that's canceled because they can't make their payment," he said. "Hopefully we eliminated a few of them today."

To pick customers who were surprised Saturday, employees looked through boxes stowed in the layaway area and chose orders that included school supplies and school uniforms, Weatherby said.

Pay Away the Layaway was inspired by the story of an anonymous donor who paid off tens of thousands of dollars of orders at Toys "R" Us, said founder Lee Karchawer.

Since 2011, the organization has helped pay off layaway balances in 20 states, he said.

Karchawer, who works in advertising sales, picked Baltimore to bring positive attention to the area after the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in April. He said he wanted to "show that there's still a lot of good people who are thinking about Baltimore."

The day got off to a rough start, when Kmart workers in the layaway section had problems running Strub's credit card to pay for each transaction. The credit card company thought the repeated purchases were fraudulent, Strub said.

"This is very frustrating," he said between calls with credit card company representatives.

He eventually worked out the credit card problem and headed to the front of the store to surprise the winning customers.

Strub, a 29-year-old who attended Binghamton University in New York with Karchawer, has been on a mission this summer to perform volunteer work with youth organizations in all 50 states within 100 days. People from around the country have been following his journey on social media.

Maryland is Strub's 46th state. On Friday, he did work with Living Classrooms, an organization that provides educational programs for children.

Strub said he is a strong supporter of Pay Away the Layaway and wanted to highlight the group during his travels.

"I can't tell you how amazing of an experience it is to save Christmas for a kid," he said. "And to take that magic and to move it up a few months through this Layaway for Learning initiative that we're starting this year, it blows you away."

alisonk@baltsun.com

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