Story by Lyndsey Schley
Growing community organization plans to expand efforts with community support
Akron Snow Angels is a non-profit that has been providing the homeless with warm clothes and necessities throughout the winter since 2015.
The organization also aims to teach community members compassion for the homeless by offering opportunities to interact with them, Founder Erin Victor said.
Erin Victor, Founder of Akron Snow Angels
Giving Clothing, Getting Experiences
The Snow Angels met to sort through donations in a donated space in Akron. This process allows the people on missions to distribute items in a more deliberate and organized way.
The building is also used for Time Traveler Records and a music practice space. The sounds of a practicing drummer seep into the room where we sort clothes.
The room is a little chilly but a group of about 20 people sorted clothes and other items so they would be ready for distribution. They also attached cards to spread awareness of the organization.
Many of the volunteers present are children. Giving kids a chance to interact with people who are homeless is important, said Victor.
“The parents are getting their kids involved, which is really helping them to have their eyes open about helping others, knowing that they’re very lucky for what they have and things like that,” she said. “We have a kid that’s been involved since the very first year, so he’s like three years older now and some of his best friends are homeless.”
Volunteers can also participate in 10 missions from November to April. During these missions, volunteers go out into the community and distribute items to the needy.
Each car holds a different type of item such as boots, jackets and toiletries and is staffed by helpers. Wandering volunteers hand out socks and hand warmers.
Volunteer Vicki McVan has been around since the first mission. She said she has gotten to know both volunteers and homeless people alike through the group.
“The community’s really kind of jumped in and this is a huge amount of people, different people every week, too,” she said. “Erin’s fantastic. She makes you feel like you’re part of the family as soon as you walk into the door.”
Volunteer Lori Krohn said interacting with the homeless has changed the way she sees them and now, she will stop and buy items for the homeless people she walks by.
“I think you get to see it through their eyes and I know I’ve changed the way I look at everyone,” she said. “You know, you just never want to jump to conclusions.”
The organization also holds a Christmas in July event in the summer. They offer haircuts, a medical truck, free food and more at Grace Park in Akron.
“Every year we want to add things,” Victor said. “We have a DJ. We had Santa come. The Girl Scouts came and did crafts for the kids.”
She said many homeless people struggle with mental illness.
“They can’t hold a job,” she said. “It’s not just all laziness. Really every situation has been different.”
She has seen cruelty towards the homeless because they are misunderstood. She said they often get robbed and attacked. One incident involved a panhandler she knows who has mental health issues.
“Somebody got out of their car and like tried to beat him up,” she said. “What is wrong with you? I don’t want to ever meet somebody who is like that.”
They are also partnering with the Devil Strip, a local magazine, to interview the homeless and tell their stories to the greater community.
The Pozsgay and Beddell families make
200 lunches as food sponsors for a mission.
Warm Beginnings in a Cold Winter
The idea for the organization started on a day in January 2015 when Victor was helping serve food to the needy at St. Bernard’s Parish with Torchbearers, a leadership group. She found that after helping the people there, she did not feel better, but worse.
“I met a lot of people, people that didn’t have socks, people who had holes in their shoes, people who were homeless because of circumstances that were out of their control, people that lost jobs,” she said. “I left feeling sad that there wasn’t more resources for these people.”
She took these feelings home and made a Facebook post sharing her experience and calling for people to donate items so they could be given to the homeless on Superbowl Sunday.
People reacted strongly to the post. Annabell’s Bar & Lounge acted as a drop off point for donations.
“It ended up blowing up huge,” she said. “So, we went out on Superbowl Sunday, with items that filled my kitchen, my dining room and my solarium.”
A volunteer and a homeless man who
have gotten to know each other share a hug.
Despite blustery weather, the event went on as planned.
“We drove around the streets, looking for people that didn’t have proper clothing on,” she said. “We went to the shelters, things like that and it was a day that was super snowy, super cold and they actually had shut down the streets.”
After that first night, she and the other volunteers continued to collect items and give them out – and that is how the organization was born.
Victor said the last two years have been a whirlwind.
“I feel like I wanted to do something nice for the community and these people that I felt so horribly about after going on that soup kitchen thing, but a divine power, I personally believe in God, said you’re going to do this and that’s how it’s going to be and literally every door has opened,” she said.
Two friends helped her apply to make the organization a non-profit. An attorney helped her draft the bylaws.
“These people just kept coming and helping and helping and helping and like ‘Let’s do this’, ‘Let me help you do this’ and I’m like ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’” she said. “I mean, I have a full-time job. This is another full-time job on nights and weekends, but you know, sometimes I’m tired, but I love it.”
While this is not the same as a homeless shelter, Akron Snow Angels Board Member Josh Troche said they provide homeless people items they need to survive the winter.
“Stay outside for 24 hours downtown when it’s below freezing,” Troche said. “You’d like an extra jacket also. In the same sense, we help many of these people get in touch with services that can help them.”
Victor said shelters, public housing and community services are not always an option. For example, the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority has a wait list of more than 16,000 people.
One of the issues that is interconnected to homelessness is mental health. Akron Snow Angels Board Member Megan Bobula said she has met people who have lost jobs and homes because of mental health crises.
“Most people know and love someone who has struggled with issues related to mental health,” she said. “People without support systems can end up homeless very easily and it is a deep hole to dig out from under after that. This may lead to conditions going untreated and the situation worsening and homelessness lasting a lifetime.”
The board has mixed opinions on whether Housing First, a philosophy that suggests that a top priority when helping a homeless person should be getting them into housing, is the best way to go. Akron Snow Angels Board Member Lisa Kane said it can be best to fix whatever a person is dealing with at the moment first.
“Getting the help they need, whatever that may be is the most important in my opinion,” she said. “Whether it be mental help, drug/alcohol abuse treatment, out of a violent situation, etc… Work on this and then when things become a little more stable for the person, find them housing.”
However, Troche said shelter is the number one need and learning how to function in it can be very important to ending homelessness.
“Unless we teach people how to maintain themselves in that shelter at the same time, there is a greater chance that they do not last in it,” he said.
Since it outgrew Victor’s home, the organization has been working out of donated space, first donated by Developer Joel Testa and currently provided by Jill Bacon Madden of Jilly’s Music Room. However, they will be leaving the space around May.
Victor hopes that they can find a more permanent space which they can either pay for using donations or have donated to them.
“We’re really organized right now, which is great, but every time you move to another space, it turns into another crazy, crazy thing,” she said. “So, we definitely need to find some kind of permanent home.”
Victor also hopes that at some point they can get a truck or van to take out for the missions.
“The people that we’re seeing can’t fit,” she said “I have a little car, so we need to actually have a vehicle for Snow Angels.”
Monetary donations are also used for a variety of different needs homeless people face. Homeless people can make requests to the organization, such as when it is out of the shoe size they need or they have no tent to sleep in.
The Snow Angels also occasionally run out of specific items that are commonly needed, such as deodorant, formula and underwear. They once replaced broken windows in a person’s home, which kept that person from being evicted and becoming homeless.
Monetary donations can be made on the group’s GoFundMe page. Victor said they appreciate when people hold fundraisers for them.
“We have people who have birthday parties and instead of gifts, they ask for donations to us, which is huge,” she said.
The organization has food and coffee sponsors for each mission. All the rest of the items they give out are donated by community members. They can be dropped off in locations in Akron, Fairlawn and Stow. The group’s donation page includes a full list of drop off locations, along with all the items they are taking at this time.
“Grab a toothpaste and start a bag for us and then drop it off. Socks, underwear, anything you can imagine,” she said. “If you’re cleaning out your closets, as long as it’s on the list of the items that we need, that’s great.”
She said people often donate toiletries they collect from hotels.
“We have people that if they work in an office space and they travel a lot, have a bin, so that anybody who goes to hotels [can donate],” she said. “As long as they’re unused, throw them in that bin and bring them to us. We love hotel toiletries and that costs no money for anybody.”
For more information go to: www.facebook.com/akronsnowangels/