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'Layaway angels' and gold coins: Americans find new ways to warm hearts (VIDEO)

'Layaway angels' and the phenomenon of jewelry and coins being dropped into Salvation Army kettles shows Americans may be looking for social connections in their giving this holiday season.

By Staff writer / December 21, 2011

Yoneira Noriega, left, and her mother Anna Noriega leave the Kmart layaway department with their gifts Monday in Costa Mesa, Calif. The happy shoppers arrived at the store to learn that an anonymous donor had paid off the balance of their Christmas gift purchases. A man paid $16,000 to a Kmart in Costa Mesa to pay off more than 200 lay aways there.

H. Lorren Au Jr./AP

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From Bangor, Maine, to Los Angeles, anonymous philanthropists known as “layaway angels” are paying off tens of thousands of dollars in layaway items for struggling families.

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The Salvation Army, too, is seeing evidence of a shift in altruistic behavior at their iconic red kettles. Even as overall coin-dropping is down from last year, people in cities like Atlanta and Kokomo, Ind., are dropping off valuable items, including gold krugerrands, gold bars, and even diamond wedding bands, in large numbers.

Taken together, the two trends highlight a subtle change in how some Americans are choosing to give during hard economic times. And, it seems, those who are donating this holiday season may be searching for more emotionally satisfying ways to give.

“Emotions matter to people, and in order to give you need a good story, and that could be a factor,” says Keith Brown, a sociology professor at St. Joseph's University, in Philadelphia.

The “layaway angels” phenomenon, which began in Michigan, has settled more than 1,000 layaway accounts with a value of $400,000, according to Kmart. The layaway option, a pre-credit card retail invention that allows customers to gradually pay off the price of an item, has itself made a comeback as credit card use has dropped amid high unemployment and stubborn economic uncertainty.

In Orange County, Calif., one man saw a local story about the layaway angels phenomenon and promptly called the Costa Mesa Kmart, where he spent over $15,000 to settle hundreds of layaway accounts. Other angels had already settled $8,000 worth of layaway accounts at the store.

The “layaway angels” phenomenon likely taps into a search for social connections between those who give and those who receive, Scott Huettel, a psychology professor at Duke University, tells ABC News.

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