OMAHA, Neb. — After a Good Samaritan helped her pay off the layaway bill she'd accumulated to buy Christmas gifts for her grandchildren, Lori Stearnes planned to collect her paycheck Friday and head to Kmart anyway.
Her new plan: Pay the stranger's kindness forward by using the money she'd budgeted to instead support somebody else.
"It just gives you a warm feeling," said Stearnes, 53, of Omaha. "... With all the things going on the world, just to have someone do that is so, I don't know, it's hard to put into words."
At Kmart stores across the country, Santa seems to be getting some help: Anonymous donors are paying off strangers' layaway accounts, buying the Christmas gifts other families couldn't afford, especially toys and children's clothes set aside by impoverished parents.
Stearnes said at first she thought it was a joke when someone from the Omaha store called to say someone had paid off most of her layaway bill for toys and outfits she bought for the youngest four of her seven grandchildren.
The total bill was about $250, but after the stranger helped, she only had a $58 balance, she said. Stearns, who cleans medical instruments at a hospital, said she and her husband, Lloyd, live paycheck to paycheck and that layaway often helps spread out the costs of Christmas.
A similar random act of kindness happened at a Kmart in Indianapolis, where a young father wearing dirty clothes and worn-out boots, stood in line at a layaway counter alongside three small children.
He asked to pay something on his bill because he knew he wouldn't be able to afford it all before Christmas. Then a mysterious woman stepped up to the counter.
"She told him, 'No, I'm paying for it,'" recalled Edna Deppe, assistant manager at the store in Indianapolis. "He just stood there and looked at her and then looked at me and asked if it was a joke. I told him it wasn't, and that she was going to pay for him. And he just busted out in tears."
Before she left the store Tuesday evening, the Indianapolis woman in her mid-40s had paid the layaway orders for as many as 50 people. On the way out, she handed out $50 bills and paid for two carts of toys for a woman in line at the cash register.
"She was doing it in the memory of her husband who had just died, and she said she wasn't going to be able to spend it and wanted to make people happy with it," Deppe said. The woman did not identify herself and only asked people to "remember Ben," an apparent reference to her husband.
Deppe, who said she has worked in retail for 40 years, had never seen anything like it.
"It was like an angel fell out of the sky and appeared in our store," she said.
Most of the donors have done their giving secretly.
Dona Bremser, an Omaha nurse, was at work when a Kmart employee called to tell her that someone had paid off the $70 balance of her layaway account, which held nearly $200 in toys for her 4-year-old son.
"I was speechless," Bremser said. "It made me believe in Christmas again."
Dozens of other customers have received similar calls in Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa, Indiana and Montana.
The benefactors generally ask to help families who are squirreling away items for young children. They often pay a portion of the balance, usually all but a few dollars or cents so the layaway order stays in the store's system.
The phenomenon seems to have begun in Michigan before spreading, Kmart executives said.
"It is honestly being driven by people wanting to do a good deed at this time of the year," said Salima Yala, Kmart's division vice president for layaway.
The good Samaritans seem to be visiting mainly Kmart stores, though a Wal-Mart spokesman said a few of his stores in Joplin, Mo., and Chicago have also seen some layaway accounts paid off.
Kmart representatives say they did nothing to instigate the secret Santas or spread word of the generosity. But it's happening as the company struggles to compete with chains such as Wal-Mart and Target.
Kmart may be the focus of layaway generosity, Yala said, because it is one of the few large discount stores that has offered layaway year-round for about four decades. Under the program, customers can make purchases but let the store hold onto their merchandise as they pay it off slowly over several weeks.
Karl Graff, assistant manager of the Omaha store, said at least one good Samaritan paid off the accounts of five people. One woman broke into tears when he called to tell her about the help.
"She wasn't sure she was going to be able to pay off their layaway and was afraid their kids weren't going to have anything for Christmas," Graff said. "You know, 50 bucks may not sound like a lot, but I tell you what, at the right time, it may as well be a million dollars for some people."
In Missoula, Mont., a man spent more than $1,200 to pay down the balances of six customers whose layaway orders were about to be returned to a Kmart store's inventory because of late payments.
Store employees reached one beneficiary on her cellphone at Seattle Children's Hospital, where her son was being treated for an undisclosed illness.
"She was yelling at the nurses, 'We're going to have Christmas after all!'" store manager Josine Murrin said.
A Kmart in Plainfield Township, Mich., called Roberta Carter last week to let her know a man had paid all but 40 cents of her $60 layaway.
Carter, a mother of eight from Grand Rapids, Mich., said she cried upon hearing the news. She and her family have been struggling as she seeks a full-time job.
"My kids will have clothes for Christmas," she said.
Angie Torres, a stay-at-home mother of four children under the age of 8, was in the Indianapolis Kmart on Tuesday to make a payment on her layaway bill when she learned the woman next to her was paying off her account.
"I started to cry. I couldn't believe it," said Torres, who doubted she would have been able to pay off the balance. "I was in disbelief. I hugged her and gave her a kiss."
Associated Press writers Michael J. Crumb in Des Moines, Iowa; Matt Volz, in Helena, Mont.; and Jeff Karoub in Detroit contributed to this report.