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Layaway angels lacking this holiday season

TashHiggins back left laughs with customers as they put items layaway Kmart Montgomery Tuesday December 18 2012. This year fewer

Tasha Higgins, back left, laughs with customers as they put items on layaway at the Kmart in Montgomery on Tuesday, December 18, 2012. This year fewer "Layaway Angels" have come to pay off the balances for items on layaway than have in years past. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 20, 2013 6:04AM

It was a phenomenon that spread across the country last year, as “layaway angels” fluttered into local K-Mart stores, ready to pay off the balances on the accounts of struggling families.

This holiday season the need is still great, but the enthusiasm has died down.

“We’re probably up to 16 angels now,” said store manager Shelly Schwartz.

The number of angels has picked up recently — more than triple what it was last week — but it’s still far below last year. Schwartz said, if the trend follows last year, donations could spike in the last seven days.

A year ago, dozens of generous donors randomly showed up at local K-Mart stores, looking to help out families in need. Toys, bicycles, clothes, dolls and art supplies were quickly paid by strangers.

Employees are hoping that the trend repeats.

As of Tuesday, Montgomery’s K-Mart location had only been visited by one angel willing to take on the layaway challenge. A generous family paid off the balance of three layaway accounts, said co-manager Chris Toman. The total dollar amount was between $500 and $600. The donation purchased toys and clothing for families in Aurora and Montgomery.

After making the payment, the donor was on-hand to call the families and relay the good news.

“It was awesome. They were crying,” Toman said of those on the receiving end.

The angel also bought a winter jacket for a grandmother who was at the counter preparing to put the coat on layaway.

“She was stunned. Nobody had ever done that for her before,” Toman said.

Besides the one generous donor, Toman said the store has received several inquiries from companies wanting to help out, but none have followed through.

“We’ve had people call, but only one person actually came in,” she said. “I think last year it just kind of caught on. Like when you’re in line at Starbucks and someone pays it forward, it catches on for that day, until the line dies down.”

K-Mart, Toys “R” Us and Wal-Mart all offer layaway during the holidays, but local stores have seen few angel donations.

“There is still time,” Schwartz said. “People can definitely still come in.”

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