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/ Source: TODAY Contributor
By Terri Peters

When Shelley Ginn walked into her local Kmart this weekend, the mom of three was unaware that some of her family’s back-to-school financial burdens were about to be lifted.

Ginn was among nearly 25 families in Baltimore, Maryland who had their back-to-school layaway balance paid off by Pay Away the Layaway, a non-profit organization that has been paying off Christmas layaways for families since 2011.

Parents and kids celebrate after learning that their layaway balances would be paid off.
Parents and kids celebrate after learning that their layaway balances would be paid off by Pay Away the Layaway. "They were dancing — dancing in the aisles," store manager Mark Weatherby said. "Everyone was hugging. It was great!"Mark Weatherby

Pay Away the Layaway founder Lee Karchawer said that since starting the program, he has received feedback suggesting that the organization pay off layaways not only during the holidays, but also during the back-to-school season, when families can feel burdened by the endless lists of school supplies, clothing and other items their kids need in order to have a successful school year.

“To be able to do this during back-to-school time — when families are struggling to buy the things their kids need to do well in school — this is perfect,” Karchawer said of the organization’s new “Layaway for Learning” initiative.

The Baltimore Kmart location was Pay Away the Layaway’s first attempt at this new take on “layaway angels.” Karchawer said he and the organization’s board of directors chose Baltimore as the pilot location because the city is still recovering from violent rioting in the spring after Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.

Mark Weatherby, the manager of the Kmart store chosen, said his store had been boarded up during the riots after threats of looting surfaced on social media. He said he and his staff can tell how much many of their customers are struggling financially; workers put unpaid layaways back on an almost daily basis.

Kmart store manager Mark Weatherby poses with one of his customers.
Kmart store manager Mark Weatherby poses with a customer whose layaway was paid off by Pay Away the Layaway.Courtesy of Mark Weatherby

“This was a great cause — helping people with back-to-school bills,” Weatherby told TODAY Parents. “These people, they thought they owed $200 on their layaway and school starts next week. Now, instead of ‘Where am I going to get the money?’ — all of a sudden, they don’t have to worry. It was very heartwarming to see. They were dancing — dancing in the aisles! Everybody was hugging. It was great!”

Ginn, whose layaway contained school clothes for her 12-year-old daughter, said that when she learned Pay Away the Layaway would be paying off everyone’s balances, she began crying happy tears.

Shelley Ginn with "layaway angel" Chris Strub and her 12-year-old daughter, Kayla.
Shelley Ginn, far right, was one of the customers to have her layaway purchases paid off. Ginn is pictured here with "layaway angel" Chris Strub and her 12-year-old daughter, Kayla.Courtesy of Shelley Ginn

“This organization helped me out more than they know. It was a blessing in disguise,” Ginn said. “I felt very grateful, as nothing good ever happens to me. I was very surprised, and it helped me out tremendously. It was an amazing experience.”

Chris Strub, a college friend of Karchawer, acted as the layaway angel for the event — announcing to customers that the organization had given a little more than $3,000 to pay off the layaway balances for the nearly 25 families. This is Strub’s second time acting in this role for Pay Away the Layaway, an experience that the volunteer describes as “life-changing, powerful and moving.”

"Layaway angel" Chris Strub gets a hug
Chris Strub, left, was the "layaway angel" at the store event. He said it was an emotional experience.Chris Strub

“It’s obviously a high-gravity moment to break the news to all these families at the same time,” Strub said. “It’s a rush of emotion that is incomparable.”

Karchawer said Pay Away the Layaway has plans to pay off additional back-to-school layaways in the next few weeks, both before school begins and a few weeks into the school year. Once they’ve helped families pay off backpacks, uniforms and school supplies, the organization will turn its attention to the holidays — and pay off toys, clothes and holiday gifts for families across the country.