'Layaway angels' are back to pay off shoppers' outstanding balances before Christmas

Erin Donnelly
·4-min read
A Burlington Coat Factory shopper in Dallas reacts to having his layaway balance cleared by Dallas Mavericks star Dwight Powell. (Photo: Courtesy of Pay Away the Layaway)
A Burlington Coat Factory shopper in Dallas reacts to having his layaway balance cleared by Dallas Mavericks star Dwight Powell. (Photo: Courtesy of Pay Away the Layaway)

In Henrico County, Va. last Saturday, an anonymous benefactor paid $50,000 to clear the layaway balances for around 100 Walmart shoppers. The retail chain also just got a holiday boost from Gayle Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans, who paid off balances at three stores in New Orleans, Alexandria, La. and Birmingham, Ala., benefitting about 300 families. This Monday, former TV host Montel Williams surprised military families across the United States by announcing, over Zoom, that more than $25,000 worth of layaway balances at Army & Air Force Exchange Service — a retailer found on military bases — had been wiped out just in time for Christmas. And at a Dallas-area Burlington Coat Factory the next night, more than 50 families arrived to find that NBA star Dwight Powell of the Dallas Mavericks, in partnership with Coca-Cola Southwest Beverages, had donated $15,000 to bring their outstanding layaway balances to zero.

While “layaway angels” — those who pay off money owed to retailers that offer shoppers the option of making payment installments on reserved items, including Christmas gifts — typically resurface during the holiday season, the latest flurry of donations feels especially poignant given the economic hardship this year’s pandemic has wrought. For many families, money is especially tight this year, and, in the absence of additional stimulus relief, layaway plans offer a sort of lifeline — provided the balance can be paid off by the pre-Christmas deadline. (Dates vary by retailer, but the deadline to pay off and pick up layaway items is Dec. 14 at Walmart and Dec. 19 at Burlington Coat Factory.)

Pay Away the Layaway founder Lee Karchawer, whose nonprofit organization uses donations to pay off layaway balances for children’s gifts, clothing and essentials during back-to-school season and the holidays, tells Yahoo Life that he worried that potential donors might also be too financially “strapped” to help out this year.

“But it’s actually turning into one of our biggest years ever, believe it or not,” says Karchawer, an advertising professional who founded the charity after being inspired by the story of an anonymous “angel” at Kmart back in 2011.

“We are on track to pay off nearly $500,000 in layaway balances and we still have a week until Christmas Eve to do even more,” he says. “In addition to the everyday donors who support our cause while sitting at home [through online donations], we’ve also had a lot of big-name, high-profile organizations and celebrities who have rallied behind us as well.”

Along with the Montel Williams event for military families and the Dwight Powell donation for Burlington Coat Factory, which, along with Walmart, is a Pay Away the Layaway partner, there’s been a $100,000 donation from basketball player Gordon Hayward of the Charlotte Hornets, which will benefit military families through Christmas.

While the pandemic hasn’t stopped donations from flooding in, it has forced Pay Away the Layaway to change how it shares its good news with shoppers. Normally, recipients of the cleared balances would be invited to in-store events with a lot of hoopla and tears.

“There’s a lot of interaction and hugging, and it’s very emotional,” Karchawer says. “But in a world with COVID, that element kind of goes away, so that’s certainly one of the bummers.”

Mo Adams of Atlanta United FC (second from left) appeared at a drive-through event at an Atlanta Burlington Coat Factory, where he cleared $12,000 worth of layaway balances. (Photo: Pay Away the Layway)
Mo Adams of Atlanta United FC (second from left) appeared at a drive-through event at an Atlanta Burlington Coat Factory, where he cleared $12,000 worth of layaway balances. (Photo: Pay Away the Layway)

One workaround has been to use video chat; Powell, for instance, spoke to masked shoppers over an iPad screen in lieu of being physically present. There have also been socially distant drive-up events in which shoppers remain in their cars, including a Dec. 12 appearance at a Burlington Coat Factory store in Atlanta featuring Mo Adams of Atlanta United FC, who donated $12,000. Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster also held drive-through Burlington events in Pittsburgh and Compton, Calif. on Dec. 15, paying off balances for more than 170 families with his $25,000 donation.

Not all “layaway angels” are well-known, however. Pay Away the Layaway also teamed up with the secret good Samaritan behind the $21,000 donation impacting 96 families at a Walmart in Hazard, Ky.

“It’s especially touching when customers pay off others’ layaways during the holiday season and serves as another example of the generosity our customers show year-round,” a spokesperson for the big-box chain tells Yahoo Life. “We’re honored to play a small role in these acts of kindness and we love seeing the joy it brings to our customers this time of year.”

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