In more than 30 years in the retail industry, Sharon Carter has never seen a phenomenon as uplifting as the one that’s making its way through many of the nation’s largest retail chains.

Carter, who manages the Kmart store in Augusta, said two people have walked into her store since Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving – and paid off strangers’ layaway orders.

Last weekend, one middle-age man paid off five layaway accounts, in an act of generosity that cost him more than $500.

The “layaway angels” have insisted on remaining anonymous and have asked that their generosity go to needy parents who set up accounts to buy toys for their children’s Christmas.

Layaway accounts are set up in advance of Christmas, giving customers a chance to reserve the gifts they want and pay down the accounts on a monthly basis.

“One woman broke down and started crying when she found out what happened. Another woman said she was planning to close her account so that she could pay her electric bill,” Carter said. “When times are the hardest is when customers become the most generous.”

Most of the good Samaritans appear to be visiting Kmart stores, which have offered year-round layaway plans for about four decades.

Kmart stores across the nation, including those in Augusta, Waterville and Bangor, have reported visits by layaway angels. Kmart officials say they did nothing to instigate the wave of giving.

A spokeswoman for Walmart confirmed Monday that the trend started hitting that company’s stores about a week ago.

“We are starting to see this coast to coast,” said Walmart spokeswoman Kayla Whaling. “It speaks so highly of our customers. It’s a case of neighbors helping neighbors.”

Dean Barbalias of Gorham and his wife, Donna, are retired. Their two children are adults. Instead of buying each other Christmas presents, the Barbaliases enjoy giving gifts to those in need.

Occasionally, Donna Barbalias will pay for the order of the person behind her in line at a Dunkin’ Donuts drive-up.

“I started paying for other people’s orders after someone did it for me at a McDonald’s restaurant,” she said. “There’s not enough good will in the world.”

Her husband feels the same way.

He went to the Walmart store in Scarborough on Friday and offered to pay off a stranger’s layaway account. He was told that Walmart has a policy against such transactions.

“It seemed like a wonderful thing to do at Christmas. If you can have a direct impact on a little kid’s life, then it’s worth it,” he said. “We’re not wealthy by any means. I just want to make some kid happy.”

Whaling said she contacted the Scarborough store. She said Walmart does, in fact, allow customers to pay off other people’s layaway orders. She chalked up Barbalias’ experience to a “misunderstanding.”

“To be honest, this sort of thing has taken our associates by surprise,” Whaling said.

There doesn’t appear to be an end to the kindness of strangers as the news about layaway angels spreads across the country. The Kmart store in Bangor has seen five angels since Friday.

Melinda Frost, who manages that store, said a couple in their 50s came into the store on Sunday. They have three children in college. They wanted to help a family with young children. They ended up spending more than $200 to pay off two layaway orders.

Frost said one recipient broke into tears after finding that her account had been paid off. That woman had contemplated borrowing money from a family member to pay for her children’s Christmas presents.

“It’s not something you would expect to happen,” Frost said. “It gives us in the retail industry some real holiday spirit.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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