MIAMI — Across Florida, secret Santas are bringing some extra holiday joy to families by paying their layaway bills for Christmas toys.
From Hialeah to the Panhandle, unsuspecting families are getting phone calls or arriving at the layaway counter to find out their bill has been paid. At a Kmart near Orlando, one man helped pay the bills of more than 50 families. At a store in Pensacola, good Samaritans have helped nearly a dozen.
"People cry," said Wally Silvagnoli, the store manager at a Kmart in Winter Garden. "It touches your soul."
Managers at several stores across the country have reported a wave of generosity as anonymous donors come in wanting to help pay layaway bills. Florida has been no exception: Store managers say more families are using layaway to pay for gifts bit by bit as they struggle to make ends meet, and good Samaritans are stepping in to make sure the toys end up under the tree.
"People feel good about doing something good for someone else, and it's really catching on," said Alba Strong, manager of a Kmart in Hialeah.
Strong called up three families this week to let them know an anonymous donor had paid their layaway bill. One didn't believe it and hung up. The other two were ecstatic.
"They're like, 'Really? Who did that?" Strong recalled. "They were really shocked."
In Winter Garden, about 15 miles west of Orlando, Silvagnoli said one man came in after hearing reports about families having trouble keeping up with their payments. He said the man wanted to do something for his community and did not wish to be identified.
Silvagnoli said the man paid nearly all the bills for 50 to 100 families, leaving just one or two dollars remaining on their accounts. The good Samaritan was still arranging the payments when some of the families came in, Silvagnoli said. One woman suspected he was the one who had paid off her account.
"It has to be you," Silvagnoli recalled her saying, in tears.
The woman hugged the man and thanked him. Silvagnoli said he hadn't seen anything like it before, and that the experience left him with a feeling of hope.
"There are always people who have a good heart to help the community," he said.
Dan Eppler, the manager of a Walmart in Pensacola, said four or five secret Santas have come in to pay the layaway bills of Christmas toys for about 10 families there so far. One of those helped was Sara Chaimowitz, a single mother. She told the Pensacola News Journal that her grandmother had died days before, and she and her father had spent about $900 in savings for the cremation.
Chaimowitz wasn't sure if she'd be able to pay off the remaining $60 for her son's Christmas presents.
When she went to check her layaway balance on Tuesday, she was told she only owed a penny.
"It happened at the best time possible for me and my family and for my son," Chaimowitz said.
Those stories echo those of others around the country. In Indianapolis one woman paid off the orders of as many as 50 people and handed out $50 bills on the way out. She also paid for two carts of toys for a woman in line at the cash register. She said she was doing it in memory of her husband.
Kmart executives said the phenomenon appears to have begun in Michigan. They say they did nothing to instigate the secret Santas or spread word of the generosity.
"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.