Snow Angels’ Big Hearts Warm Winter’s Chill
By Tom Konecny, MeetAmerica
As often happens at a young age, we watch and imitate others. Residents in the Northeast Ohio city of Akron can be thankful Erin Victor had a good role model at an impressionable age.
She was 16 years old during a visit to her Uncle John in New York City when she noticed him do something most wouldn’t. While on their way to breakfast, a homeless man asked for money. Uncle John didn’t just give him the money, he handled the request differently – he offered to buy his meal in that same restaurant she and her uncle visited.
That “cool” encounter planted the seed for Victor to create Akron Snow Angels, a one-of-a-kind, 4,000-volunteer group that serves hundreds of the city’s most vulnerable during the coldest months of the year.
Social (media) justice
Fast forward to 2015 when Victor volunteered at a local soup kitchen. There she witnessed homelessness tugging at her heartstrings. It was a brutal winter that year with frigid temperatures, yet she encountered many people with so little: children walking to school with thin coats, homeless with no gloves, a young mother who braved the cold draped in three layers of clothing – with a baby wrapped underneath.
“I came home and looked at my clothing,” said Victor, “and I said, ‘I have all of this.’ Some of it I hadn’t worn in years. So why have it sitting here when there are some that can’t afford it?”
Exercising her skills as a social media and event planner, Victor used Facebook to post her idea for a humble, one-time weekend clothing drive. That post went viral and ultimately gave birth to Snow Angels – and social media has sustained it ever since. Today the lifelong Akron resident uses that experience to help businesses and nonprofits move the needle forward because she knows how it helped hers.
“It was really supposed to be a one-day effort that turned into a nonprofit,” Victor said. “It’s really neat and it’s so different because there’s no paid staff. Everything we do is for the community. Everything is completely volunteer-based.”
Victor is not aware of any program in the United States identical to Snow Angels, and occasionally considers the thought of taking her creation nationwide.
“You could have this in communities all across the country,” she said. “I think every community could use an organization like this. I really do think it could go national.”
How it works
What’s different about Akron Snow Angels is that it’s mobile. Three times a month, from November through April, a team of 60 volunteers goes on “missions” in this city of almost 200,000. They visit homeless camps, shelters and less fortunate neighborhoods to provide coats and other gently used clothing like socks, underwear, shirts, hats, scarves, gloves and shoes. They also provide the less-imagined, yet greatly needed blankets, sleeping bags, bus passes and toiletries. Lunches are even part of the mission.
Knowing that they serve not just the homeless, but those in poverty, Victor said they’ll also take requests, such as for backpacks and steel toe boots.
Since its inception three years ago, Snow Angels has reached more than 2,000 people with well over 30,000 donated items. Two charity golf outings and a comedy show have raised nearly $20,000, all of which goes directly to help those in need. Victor even receives Christmas cards from friends and family with checks inside – not for her, but for Snow Angels. No one associated with this 501(c)3 receives a stipend of any kind.
Victor insists Snow Angels doesn’t just want to drop off items and leave, “We genuinely want to be friends with them.” Volunteers yearn to develop a relationship and help the impoverished find sufficient housing, jobs, health care and whatever they need to get back on their feet.
“It doesn’t just have to be the homeless population, we’re just helping people in poverty right now,” she said. “The buy-in is so high because it’s community taking care of community.”
There are times when Victor has to contend with detractors, those who believe the homeless just need to find a job or stop taking handouts.
“I did have a lot of that at the beginning, but it’s all about educating people,” she said. Often people judge homeless or poor because of unfair perceptions: people see them with pricey items they have or wear – i.e., phones or expensive name brands – but those critics have no idea how those items were obtained.
“You would be shocked at the clothing I get (donated),” Victor said. “I get North Face coats. I get Burberry coats. I get really nice Timberland boots. So, you can’t judge someone for what they’re wearing. They could be getting it from Akron Snow Angels or a homeless shelter.”
Neither does Victor believe in placing ultimatums or having strings attached with gifts, because a gift is a gift. If a person gives someone something, it becomes their business, it’s their item.
“Everyone’s so willing to throw stones at someone,” Victor said. “People are just scared of the unknown.” But she realizes that the homeless and those in poverty are just like anyone else.
“I just see them as a person,” she said. “You don’t know who someone is until you really meet them.”
Cold hands, warm hearts
Though Victor works a fast-paced, rewarding, full-time job, she still manages to spend at least 25 hours each week with Snow Angels. Her day-to-day work finds her occupied with various nonprofits, which piques her interest in volunteering and helping others. Sometimes she even gives back by helping with events pro bono.
“I have always been really involved with giving back,” she said. “I personally believe that it’s our duty to help other people on the planet. That’s how I life my life. Everyone should follow their passion and help people when you’re doing that. Snow Angels was based on that.”
Snow Angels also helps Victor to grow. She knows that without it, she never could have become the person she is today.
“I believe Snow Angels started for a reason,” Victor said. “I would have never done something like this, but God put me in the soup kitchen originally for a reason. I’m just a girl who never thought this could happen. I’m really glad that the community took the idea and ran with it with me.”
Victor is quick to acknowledge that Snow Angels isn’t just about her. She has a talented board of directors who volunteers equal amounts of time and works tirelessly. And she remains amazed at the amount of people who step forward when someone needs something.
“We call anybody and everybody who has helped in some way – we call them Snow Angels,” she said.