An epidemic of altruism that started in the Midwest has reached San Leandro.
Since Thursday, a handful of anonymous benefactors have visited the to pay off about $2,000 worth of layaway charges for more than a dozen families picked at random.
"These people were special," said Kmart assistant manager Francisco Bravo, who helped some of these layaway angels with their purchases. "Their demeanor, the way they speak, you could just tell they were people who have kindness in their hearts."
According to published reports this wave of anonymous generosity started on Dec. 6, when one woman paid off layaway charges for three strangers at a Kmart in Grand Rapids, Mich.,attracting media coverage that inspired others to follow suit.
"It's been an organic development," said Shannell Armstrong, a spokeswoman for Sears Holdings Corp., which owns Kmart. "We don't promote it. We're just trying to keep up with the reports that keep coming in."
According to Armstrong the company is compiling an overview of the gifting, which is unlike anything it has ever experienced.
"I feel comfortable saying that we have well over a thousand benefactors in more than 25 states," she said.
The trend has reached the Bay Area where one angel recently spent $9,800 to zero out 63 layaway accounts at a Kmart in Hayward.
That person, identified only as a Silicon Valley professional, told the Bay Area News Group the only recognition they wanted was to encourage other people to "pay it forward," referring to a slogan and a movie.
Bravo in San Leandro said one gentleman came in when he was working on Thursday and paid off three layaways. He heard that another angel came in on Saturday and paid off two more accounts, but he wasn't in the store that day and didn't have details.
But Bravo was working again on Sunday when one couple paid off four layaways in the morning and another pair of angels in the afternoon did the same.
"They were totally different people, different ethnicities, the only thing they had in common was that they had heard about it and wanted to do something," Bravo said. "It's almost like this tidal wave moving through the country."
Kmart has not released the names of the beneficiaries, but Bravo described how he worked with the angels to choose the lucky recipients.
"I looked for layaways that involved toys," said Bravo, 23, who recently became a first-time father.
He said one customer who benefitted was a grandmother from San Leandro who had cancelled her layaway because she couldn't afford the toys she had wanted to give her grandchildren.
Bravo said it gave him goose bumps to let the woman know that she could have her gifts — thanks to a layaway angel.
"You can't believe how happy she was," he told Patch Sunday. "She said she was going to tell everybody at her church about it."
(Patch blogger Surlene Grant for how to put this same spirit into action by helping the toy drive at the Davis Street Family Resource Center.)