AUGUSTA — 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 since Thanksgiving four people have written checks for as much as $1,000 apiece to anonymously pay off the layaway accounts of needy families with children.

One woman with four kids whose account had been mostly paid off by a stranger found out about the generosity when she came in to return about half the items she’d bought on layaway, including children’s clothing.

The woman had realized she couldn’t afford the items.

“She came in last week and was very somber, very down, and said she had to return half her stuff, because she had to pay her light bill,” Carter said Wednesday. “Our associate said ‘No, you don’t. You only owe $10. Santa Claus paid the rest.'”

The rest, paid by a stranger, totaled nearly $170.

“She was ecstatic, she could still give her kids (the items she was returning) for Christmas,” Carter said. “It’s wonderful, very heartwarming. I’m so happy for the customers.”

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

Since then, a woman paid off eight layaway accounts for a total of $1,000. And another customer mailed in a check for $500, according to Carter.

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.

Carter said workers at the Western Avenue Kmart store know their regular customers, and they know which of them are struggling. Those are the accounts they’re helping strangers pay down.

“We want to give it to the people that really need it,” she said. “They’re not picking kids with an Xbox on layaway. They’re picking families buying coloring books, crayons, drawing paper, pajamas, boots, the cheapy toys … inexpensive gifts for people that need it.”

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,” Carter said. “When times are the hardest is when customers become the most generous.”

Most of the generous strangers appear to be visiting area 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, with donations totaling more than $100,000 across the country.

Kmart officials say they did nothing to instigate the wave of giving.

Carter said the acts of kindness have inspired both customers and staff at the Kmart in Augusta, where workers donate to an annual fund to help cancer victims. Carter said she has occasionally dipped into her own pocketbook to help customers pay for items they couldn’t afford.

“We that work in the retail field don’t make a lot of money — we’re not rich,” Carter said. “So it’s heartwarming to see people are able to help their fellow human beings. It puts everybody in great spirits. Customers are talking to employees about it; it’s spreading now.”

A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart confirmed this week that the trend started hitting that company’s stores about a week ago.

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

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

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