Phyllis Byrd was as distraught as you would imagine a person to be more than 15 years ago when she found out that her husband had stage four lung cancer.
“He was only 46 and we were making plans for the future when everything came to a halt,” Byrd says. “But I was always taught growing up that when problems come along, you either roll with them or you collapse under them. I heard that many times and I wasn’t going to collapse.”
Byrd’s husband, Dennis, died in 2001 and she struggled to deal with both the grief and the difficult circumstances that came about as a result of what had happened.
“We had only been married six months,” she says. “At that time, we had no money. We couldn’t even pay for parking at the Cleveland Clinic. Once we lost his income, we were living on mine and then I took an unpaid family medical leave. We were buying a house. You have kids and you think, ‘Well, there is no income and you have someone dying.’ There are tremendous medical bills, even though he had some insurance. What does the average person do in this situation? Who do you reach out to for help or to get answers?”
Fortunately for Byrd, there were people who were willing to step in and do what was necessary to keep her on her feet. Byrd was grateful for the support and decided to create an organization that would help others who found themselves in the same desperate situation.
“I’ve always helped people all my life, but not from a nonprofit standpoint,” Byrd says. “I just took in one step further and thought if I can get the donations and get the help, I could make a difference. I’m just one person and I had to work hard because it was just me and you still have to support yourself. But it helped me realize there are other people who have had tragic things happen to them.”
In November 2003, Helping Hands of Summit County Inc. was born.
Helping where she can
Byrd recalls a women she met who had left Detroit in the middle of the night with five children and nothing but the shirts on their backs. They had left an abusive situation looking for someplace, anyplace they could go to get a fresh start. Byrd went to visit the woman and her children in their new apartment in Akron.
“It was a nice apartment, but there was absolutely nothing there,” she says. “They were sitting on the floor. We went and got beds, couches, a table and a TV. It was at Christmas time, so we got a Christmas tree. I got some people to adopt the kids to where they all got presents. I ran into the woman a year later and she was happy.
She had gotten a job and was going to school and the kids were all doing great. She wasn’t in fear anymore. That made me feel really good.”
Byrd does what she can to help whoever she can. She has four volunteers and two trustees, but she is the one who makes Helping Hands go.
“People will read about us and they’ll call me, but a lot of times it’s through referrals,” she says. “In the beginning, I was going out and talking to everybody and giving them my card and volunteering at different places. You meet people and they know others who need help. Word gets around and it doesn’t take long.”
At the core of Byrd’s efforts is the philosophy that she offers “a hand up, not a hand out.”
“I try to help those who are trying to help themselves go in the right direction,” Byrd says. “I try to refer them to places that will help them get a job or put their kids in Head Start so they can work or go back to school.”
Byrd continues to expand her outreach efforts. She launched David’s House in honor of a little boy she cared for as a foster parent when she was younger.
“He was taken out of my home and put with adoptive parents,” she says. “They were abusive and he ran away. I didn’t know anything about it, but he ended up on the street and then in prison. He fell through the cracks. I visited him later and he said what a difference it would have made if he could have stayed with a family that cared whether he came home on time or did his homework.”
David’s House helps young boys stay off the streets and Cribs for Babies helps families get cribs to give their young ones a safe place to sleep at night.
“I try to help the ones who God puts in my path,” Byrd says. “Sometimes I’ve taken my own money if I didn’t have enough donations. I know I can’t help everyone. But if God drops them in my path, I’m going to find a way to help.” ●