Donors pay off others’ layaways in Toledo area

By TYREL LINKHORN | BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

More than three dozen families this month had their holiday wishes saved at the last minute thanks to a generous donation made possible by a man who knows what it’s like to be teetering on the brink.

Blessings in Disguise, a small nonprofit founded by local businessman John Sayre, paid off 39 layaway accounts at two Toledo-area Walmart stores on Dec. 12.

That date was the last day Walmart customers had to make final payments on their layaway items or have those items returned to the stores’ shelves.

“A lot of people are too prideful to ask [for help.] They don’t like to tell you when they’re down and out,” Mr. Sayre said.

“An easy way for me to tell the last couple years people are struggling is when they put things on layaway, and it’s the last day, and they’re not paid off,” he said.

The group declined to say how much was spent, but it was several thousand dollars, and the organization targeted layaway accounts with children’s items.

Every year around Christmastime, stories pop up nationwide of kind strangers who have paid off others’ bills.

Last December, Wal-Mart said an anonymous donor visited stores in Cleveland and Lorain and spent $106,000 to pay off others’ bills. This year, an anonymous donor paid off nearly $50,000 at a Walmart in Pennsylvania. Another donor spent $5,000 at a store in southwest Ohio.

“When customers quietly pay off others’ layaway items, we’re reminded how good people can be,” the company said in a statement. “The joy that comes from these transactions extends well beyond dollars and cents. We’re honored to be a small part of these random acts of kindness.”

In the case of Mr. Sayre, he’s making good on a promise he made to himself years ago.

After a swindling venture capital fund drained his bank accounts, Mr. Sayre found himself penniless but unable to find much help because, on paper, he made too much money. He vowed that when he was able, he would start a nonprofit aimed at helping people who didn’t qualify for government assistance but nevertheless needed help.

Blessings in Disguise, which received its 501(c)3 status in 2014, is targeted at northwest Ohio individuals who make more than $24,500 and families making more than $42,500, who are receiving unemployment compensation, workers’ compensation, or short-term disability, but no government benefits.

“I was in their shoes. I fit that profile, and I couldn’t get assistance,” Mr. Sayre said. “So I vowed one day that when I could I would create the plan and the vision to create that group that would help them. And that’s really how the mission started.”

Though the organization usually does in-depth screening of everyone it helps, it broadens its reach at Christmas. At Walmart, the group took any unpaid layaway in which 95 percent of the items are clearly for children.

“We try to focus on the kids, because that’s what it’s about,” he said.

Though Wal-Mart officials didn’t know of any other similar acts in the Toledo area, employees at two area Kmart stores reported several instances in which someone offered to anonymously pay off a layaway tab.

Samantha Nicholson, the layaway manager at Kmart on Alexis Road, said one customer noticed a pile of items, including many toys, that were destined to go back on the store shelves because the amount still owed hadn’t been paid on time. When the customer learned the items had been on layaway but weren’t paid in full, she asked if she could pay the tab herself.

“I pulled from the list of people who made partial payments or some payments but couldn’t make them all, and she paid on three of them,” Ms. Nicholson said.

Officials at both stores said about five people had offered to pay this year.

“It’s very emotional,” Ms. Nicholson said.

Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at tlinkhorn@theblade.com or 419-724-6134.

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