AKRON, Ohio — A nonprofit that serves Akron’s most vulnerable residents in winter, handing out clothing, sleeping bags, back packs and toiletries, recently lost thousands of dollars of new inventory in a burglary.

“I was brought to tears about it,” said Erin Victor, founder of Akron Snow Angels. “I was like, 'Come on now. We work really hard to try to find really good deals.'”

What You Need To Know

  • Akron Snow Angels serves Akron’s most vulnerable residents in winter, handing out clothing, sleeping bags, back packs and toiletries

  • About $25,000 in newly purchased warm-weather gear was stolen from the group’s donated warehouse

  • Snow Angels has grown to more than 3,000 volunteers, with 50 volunteers on each mission

  • Snow Angels also partnered with Project Rise to provide shoes and boots for more than 2,000 homeless children in the Akron public school system

Those deals were on newly purchased coats, boots and other essentials that are hard for Akron’s poorest residents to come by. When the warehouse was robbed, Snow Angels lost about 80% of inventory, totaling about $25,000, she said. And at the start of the Snow Angels’ mission season.

“That inventory would have gotten us through this winter with maybe a little bit left over,” Victor said.

Insurance can’t reimburse Snow Angels because of the nature of the business, she said, and the warehouse space was donated.

“Snow Angels basically was couch surfing from place to place to place for free,” she said, comparing the group to the people it serves. “That's like homeless people. They're always couch surfing and they're susceptible to robberies. It's like we were put into that same situation.”

Victor formed Snow Angels in 2015, hanging scarves, hats, socks and long underwear from trees and fences around Akron. The clothing had an attached note that read: "I AM NOT LOST. If you need this to keep warm, please take it. Be safe and know that you are loved."

During missions, one area is dedicated to brown-bag meals and hot coffee. (Courtesy of Akron Snow Angels)

Word about Victor's action spread quickly through social media, so she created a Facebook page and not long after launched a nonprofit.

Since then, the group has grown to more than 3,000 volunteers, with about 50 volunteers on each of the 10 or more “missions” conducted each winter, she said. That includes an annual Christmas Day mission.

Snow Angels sets up missions in downtown Akron at Grace Park, which offers high visibility and plenty of space, Victor said. The space is necessary as Snow Angels’ missions involve a convoy of vehicles, trunks filled and packed to the roofs with supplies.

At the park, volunteers setup organized stations around the perimeter, displaying inventory by type — clothing, bedding, footwear, backpacks, toiletries and more. One area is dedicated to brown-bag meals and hot coffee.

Many chronically homeless people keep up with Snow Angels’ schedule, and relationships have formed over the years. 

Snow Angels also takes orders for items, like sleeping mats, shoes in special sizes and things needed to prepare for job interviews and other occasions.

Volunteer Ryan Burke and a Snow Angels client who received a sleeping mat on Christmas Day. (Courtesy of Akron Snow Angels)

About 1,200 people each mission season put in special requests, Victor said, which is the only documentation the group has to measure the scope of its influence.

But many don’t put in requests, she said. They pick up toiletries and select a few items from the stations and leave.

Her best guess is Snow Angels has served about 10,000 people in its seven years in operation, she said.

Most of the group’s inventory comes through cash gifts and donations of gently used clothing.  

On the missions, toiletries are essential inventory because food stamps can’t be used for toiletries, she said.

“Sometimes it's a difference between going and getting groceries, or going and getting toiletries,” she said. “We might as well take the burden off a little bit so they can save 20 bucks.”

Socks are always brand new, but other items can be second-hand as long as they are in good shape and clean, Victor said.

More challenging are the items that were stolen — coats in large sizes and warm boots, Victor said. That’s because when people invest in a pair of good boots, they generally wear them out.

“It's really hard for us to get a pair of winter boots that are still okay to pass on, but that's where our monetary donations go,” she said.

As for coats, Snow Angels needs a lot of large sizes because people who live moving from place-to-place have to layer clothing to stay warm.

“So, you know, it gets expensive, but that's what we're here for,” Victor said. “That's exactly what our wheelhouse is, is making sure to keep people warm.”

Since the burglary, Snow Angels worked with the Summit County Land Bank to get a secure storage space, although the new space is not free, Victor said.

Snow Angels is strengthening its base in other ways. The group has opened an endowment fund at Akron Community Foundation, which is designed to support the nonprofit in future.

Snow Angels also recently became a member of the Summit County Continuum of Care, a growing collective of partner agencies, from United Way to the Battered Women’s Shelter, dedicated to ending homelessness.

Snow Angels' volunteers' vehicles, loaded with warm clothing and toiletries, line the street near Grace Park on mission day. (Courtesy of Akron Snow Angels)

At the same time, Snow Angels is branching out to help other vulnerable groups, including more than 2,000 homeless children in the Akron public school system, Victor said.  

To make sure the kids have shoes, Snow Angels has partnered with Project Rise, a nonprofit that works to remove barriers to education for students facing homelessness.

“Any time that they need winter boots or walkable sneakers for the kids, they get in touch with us and we purchase the items for them,” Victor said.

Snow Angels is also partnering with Summa Health System to open clothing rooms at Akron City and St. Thomas hospitals. The clothing rooms are designed to help people admitted through the emergency room who sometimes don’t have clothes to wear when they are discharged, she said.

“If we can keep people out of the hospitals by making sure that they have gloves and hats and scarves and hand warmers and things like that, that's going to help our community as a whole,” Victor said.

If the clothing rooms are successful, Victor said she plans to contact other area hospitals to find out whether Snow Angels can partner with them.

“It's really exciting for us to be able to branch out and help more places,” she said.

To learn more about Akron Snow Angels, visit the website.