TAMPA — Lorraine Ducree faced a grim holiday and was about to let her electricity get cut off so she could give her grandkids a little joy this Christmas.
"They’re my heart," said Ducree, 68, who has struggled to pay for the children’s coats and toy trucks she put on layaway earlier this year.
But help came Friday.
Her $169 layaway at north Tampa’s Burlington Coat Factory was paid off by a charity effort supported by Lady Gaga.
The national nonprofit Pay Away the Layaway teamed up with the entertainer’s Born This Way Foundation to pay the balances for about 25 families at the store, which is near some of Hillsborough County’s most impoverished neighborhoods.
About a dozen people learned the news in person, after being drawn to the University Mall Burlington with a purposely vague promise of a giveaway.
"It’s our mission to inspire hope and spread kindness," said Lee Karchawer of Pay Away the Layaway.
The program, which relies on volunteers and donations, was founded in 2011 and will pay off accounts in 30 states and 50 cities this year.
Ducree said she didn’t believe the manager when he told her that she had won a prize. She arrived a day early and they talked her into returning.
"If you let God go with you, he won’t let you lose," she said. "I just can’t wait to see the smiles on their faces."
As local news crews readied for the 10:30 a.m. announcement, the invited families seemed self-conscious, smiling and chatting, as if they realized something special was about to happen.
The organizers announced that everyone’s holiday gifts were going home with them with a zero balance.
Gasps, applause and cries of "Thank you!" rang out.
As winners lined up at the register to square away their accounts, they laughed and sang a few bars of Gaga’s "Paparazzi."
Lady Gaga was scheduled to perform that night at the Amalie Arena as part of her "Joanne" World Tour.
She created the Born This Way Foundation in 2012. It goes on tour with her to host events centered on kindness and mental health, said foundation spokeswoman Rachel Martin.
"Everywhere we go, we’re finding people who are so eager and excited to pitch in and help their neighbors and complete strangers," she said. "It’s a great reminder that people are still really good."
Contact Libby Baldwin at [email protected] Follow her at @LibBaldwin