Secret Santas pay layaway bills, including a $15,000 gift at Lantana Kmart

Secret Santas pay layaway bills, including a $15,000 gift at Lantana Kmart

By Emily Roach, Palm Beach Post

LANTANA — Cesar Pereira was at Kmart less than five minutes after receiving a call that a layaway angel had paid off his Christmas gifts - toys and clothes for his five children, ages 16, 13, 12, 9 and 6.

Pereira spent his last paycheck on a $200 payment for the layaway bundle, but didn't know where the last $200 would come from after he lost his landscaping job two weeks ago.

"I was excited. I couldn't believe it in a way," said Pereira, who left something thawing on the kitchen counter. "We needed it because we were really in a tight jam."

Anonymous donors - two Christ Fellowship families who live in the South County area - brought checks totaling $15,000 to the Lantana Kmart on Federal Highway at about 1 p.m. Tuesday. Manager Lisa Bowman sifted through layaway accounts for hours, paying off the ones with toys, clothes and other gift items.

When one woman came to release two toys from her layaway order because she couldn't afford them, Bowman said, "You're not returning anything." When a very pregnant woman came in and found her order had been reshelved because she hadn't paid, Bowman told her to "go get everything she needed for the baby."

When she talked to Pereira, he told her of his woes, so she tacked on a shopping spree. It was just a little perk of being appointed Santa's helper.

"They feel our children need to have Christmas," Bowman said of the layaway angels.

Learner guitars, Mario Kart games, clothes and cameras all came out of Kmart layaway storage Tuesday, compliments of the secret Santas.

Kmart seems to be the nexus of the layaway angel movement across the country, but other stores that have layaway also have experienced the anonymous giving.

A Walmart regional representative said she had not been notified of any in Palm Beach County. A Toys R Us spokeswoman at the corporate offices said some stores had seen the layaway payoffs, but she didn't have region-specific information.

Kmart locations in West Palm Beach and Lake Park also have benefitted from layaway angels. Most are just people who come in and pay off an account or two, said Lake Park store manager Scott Reuter. They want to help families who are delinquent and have toys in their purchases.

"It's very exciting to see, and the people that come in are just average people," he said.

Two local families heard the stories of layaway angels elsewhere and decided it was a way to answer the church's challenge to help people in the community, Christ Fellowship Lead Pastor Todd Mullins said Tuesday. They also left religious books and fliers for the Christ Fellowship services for any of the recipients who would take them, Bowman said.

"Wherever you live, wherever you are, look for ways to give love," Mullins said. Faith should "make a difference in our world, our community," he said.

It helped not just the people who gained presents, but also the people who helped with the giving.

Bowman's eyes shined as she made call after call, telling people they owed 15 cents or 26 cents instead of $20, $90 or hundreds of dollars. The minuscule balances keep the accounts current so they won't get lost in the system.

"They don't believe you when you tell them," she said.

At this time of the year, she said, there are generally 1,000 to 2,000 layaway accounts at her store and about 15 percent of them will go delinquent.

Evette Grover of Lake Worth wanted to return a paid-off guitar to the rest of her layaway order to get the money to buy treats for the children on her bus route. She drives for The Charter School of Boynton Beach. At first, she didn't understand what Bowman was telling her. The layaway angels paid her last $90.

Now son Danny, who is taking guitar lessons, won't have to wait until January. And her young riders will get cupcakes, juice and other treats.

Maria Morelles of Hypoluxo was able to take home the clothes in her layaway order without spending $94. She had been unable to make her last scheduled payment and had until today or they would be returned to inventory.

Tonya Preston of Boynton Beach was picking up televisions she had bought online and watched people as they found out about their layaway angels.

"I think it's a wonderful thing to, one, have the money, and have the compassion to do it," she said. "That's the true spirit of giving. It makes you want to go out and do something to help."

Lucky recipients cried and thanked anyone nearby.

"We've gotten lots of hugs today," said Kmart employee Romana Cruz, who with co-worker Natacha Rivera helped Bowman spend the $15,000 gift.