Philanthropy is supposed to warm your heart, but that’s not how Erin Victor felt after volunteering at St. Bernard Parish in Akron. Victor is part of Torchbearers Akron, a group that seeks to strengthen the connection between Akron-area nonprofits and emerging leaders in the community. It was a night that would change Victor’s life.
She met a man who once worked as a car porter, but lost everything after suffering a stroke. He had no insurance, no family and was trying to get buy on minimum wage. She also met a woman who was wearing several layers of clothing to keep warm on a bitterly cold winter night.
“She started taking layers off and I just thought she was a larger lady,” Victor says. “But underneath all those layers, she had a baby strapped to her. I had a brand-new niece that was just born, so it totally hit home. I thought, ‘What if she fell on the ice? How can a baby breathe under there?’ It blew my mind.”
Victor returned home that night in January 2015 with a heavy heart.
“I just felt horribly sad,” Victor says.
She had to act, so she got on Facebook and explained that she wanted to conduct a clothing drive that weekend, which just happened to be the weekend of the Super Bowl.
“I said, ‘I’m embarrassed to have so many pairs of winter boots and drawers full of socks and enough coats that I could wear a different coat for a whole month and not run out, and yet these people don’t have anything and are freezing,’” she says.
An immediate response
The response to her Facebook post was immediate and enthusiastic.
“All these people started sharing it with their contacts,” Victor says. “I had a friend of mine from high school, Julie Farris, who said she wanted to help me with it. Her brother is a manager at Annabell’s in Highland Square and got permission to be a donation drop-off location. It was an all-day Saturday drop-off. By noon, he said, ‘You guys need to come do a pickup. It’s absolutely crazy.’ That night, we ended up picking up three carloads of donations that filled a good portion of my kitchen and living room.”
The Akron Snow Angels were born. The manner the group uses to deliver hats, gloves, coats and scarves to the homeless and those in the Akron area who really need these pieces of clothing is a bit unconventional.
“We went out that Super Bowl Sunday and hung items on the trees or went to bus stops or other places downtown and handed them out to people who really needed to get warm,” Victor says. “We made tags that said, ‘These items are not lost. If you need this to stay warm, please take it.’”
Victor and her group of volunteers were out delivering warmth for seven hours. When the day was done, she felt like she had done something important, something that would make a difference. But she thought that would be the end of it.
Two days later, she got a call from a friend in Cleveland. While Victor was collecting items on Saturday to pass out, she had met a writer from Cleveland.com who told her he intended to write a story about what she was doing. Her friend was calling to let her know that the story had landed on the front page.
“I walked into a gas station and the first thing the clerk said was, ‘Hey, you’re that girl in the paper,’” she says. “So I grab a handful of newspapers. It was on the middle part of the front page and there was a whole write-up inside. By the end of the day, my inbox was full, LinkedIn, Facebook. Our one-weekend mission to do something good in the community turned into every single Sunday for the entire winter.”
Today, the Akron Snow Angels has more than 2,000 volunteers and has to turn people away from its delivery efforts in the winter so as not to intimidate the people who are receiving the clothing items. A handful of people delivering a coat or a pair of gloves is much more welcoming than a crowd of 50 or 100 people.
Special requests are always accepted and every effort is made to grant them, whether it’s someone who needs a coat, a mattress to sleep on, toothpaste or a Bible.
Victor’s perception of the homeless has changed a great deal in the past two years.
“The stigma around the homeless is that they are all mentally ill and they are all drug addicts,” Victor says. “So I was scared and nervous that first time. We were also worried we might get in trouble by the city for hanging items in different places.”
Fortunately, Victor’s fears were not realized. The city supported her group’s efforts to help. And the people helped by the Akron Snow Angels were grateful for the show of compassion.
“A lot of it is building relationships and learning what these people actually need,” she says. “If we’re getting to know them and they trust us and they start coming to us to help them with getting an ID or finding housing or getting the support they need to turn their life around, that’s when we know we’re doing a good thing. That’s where we have success. They know we really care about them.”
The group’s Christmas in July event was a huge success and Victor is now gearing up for another winter.
“This has made me a completely different person,” she says. “The compassion and heart I’ve seen from everybody is just amazing.” ●