By the age of 11, Ty Williams was on a first-name basis with several of downtown Akron’s homeless.
So when the Tallmadge youth asked his dad if he could spend Christmas morning with his new friends, it seemed like a perfectly good idea.
Ty, his dad Bo Williams, and his grandma Becky Warner began volunteering with Akron Snow Angels almost at its inception two years ago.
The group hits the street twice a month between November and April to distribute food, coats and blankets while fostering friendships.
Ty’s request for a special Christmas Day outing was passed on to Snow Angels founder Erin Victor, who mirrored his enthusiasm.
That was last year.
Ty (now 12) and his family were among 23 volunteers Sunday trying to turn last year’s event into an annual tradition, passing out sandwiches and snacks, hot coffee, warm socks and Christmas hugs to dozens of men and women at Grace Park.
“Look, there’s Javon,” Bo Williams said with a nudge at Ty. Ty turned, then ran to embrace one of his friend, Javon Jenkins.
Volunteer Megan Bobula of Cuyahoga Falls said it touches her heart to see young people involved in such a personal way.
“I didn’t do any volunteering like that when I was growing up,” she said.
The creation of Snow Angels was more accidental than intentional, Victor said. She said she was working at a local soup kitchen in January, 2015, when she saw “three people who broke my heart.”
One was a woman “who had a ton of clothes on, and as she was taking off the layers, there was a baby strapped to her,” she recalled.
The second was a man struggling to speak, but she learned enough to understand he had lost his job as a car porter because of a stroke. The third: A man in a corner, struggling to get warm on a blustery day.
“I left that day not feeling good,” she said. “I left feeling horrible.”
She posted on Facebook that she was collecting hats, gloves and scarves so she could go out on Super Bowl Sunday and pass them out at homeless encampments. Friends and family helped spread the word, and soon three rooms in her home were brimming with donations, with offers to help distribute them.
When news media learned of their efforts, the one-day effort turned into a movement.
“It blew up into a social media blitz, and now we’re a 501(c)3 charity,” Victor said. “The community has really backed us.”
She estimates there are more than 2,000 volunteers in her database, of which about 50 are used every other Sunday during the cold months. They used to travel by caravan to locations frequented by the homeless, but now the homeless come to them where they set up tables at Grace Park.
As Victor shared her story, she bounced on her shoulder a baby boy swaddled in a new crocheted scarf and an oversized hat that hid everything but a pair of rosy cheeks.
Ten-month-old Hunter belongs to Ellen Owen, who said the Snow Angels have been her guardian angels.
Owen said she came to Akron from Kentucky three years ago and was stranded by her traveling companions. Locals showed her the ropes of living a homeless life, and she stayed in a tent near some downtown Akron railroad tracks for two years before finding shelter in August.
Owen said Victor and her volunteers have not only been a source of food and fellowship, they made sure Hunter got what he needed: Clothes, baby food, a crib.
“They regularly stop in and check on us,” she said. “Even though I’m not homeless anymore, they still care.”
Snow Angels are motivated by a variety of reasons.
Bo Williams said he introduced his son Ty to the charity because he wanted to teach him about compassion. It has been an eye-opening experience to learn how some people end up on the street.
“Many people are just one or two paychecks away” from being in their shoes, Williams said.
“They are family to me,” Ty said. “Don’t judge them by how they look.”
Helping Ty pass out sandwiches on Sunday was 11-year-old Dominic Clause of Aurora, a first-time Snow Angel whose mom, Erin Kurec, suggested the activity.
“I thought it was a good idea because we were going to get a warm Christmas and a nice meal, but they’re probably not,” Dominic said.
Kim Shaffer and Jamie Hannen of Columbus spent the night in Akron with family so they could join Sunday’s outing. They have come north before to help, including the start of the cold season when they attached winter clothing to bridges for people who are too proud to accept help in person.
“We’ve just gotten really involved in charities this year,” Hannen said, in part because the couple is getting married in 2017 and wanted to give back as a means of celebrating all the support they have been given.
Meanwhile, Kristin Yoho of Cuyahoga Falls said she needed a service project to complete her training as a yoga teacher. She brought several other volunteers in tow, including her husband, her brother-in-law, her infant son, and her mom, Patty Fortney.
Asked why she chose to spend her holiday at Grace park, Fortney’s eyes filled with tears.
“It seemed like the right thing to do,” she said as she held out a bag filled with candy canes toward the strangers who passed her. “They could be any of us.”
One candy cane recipient, Noway White Jr., said even more than the food and clothing, he enjoys visits from the Snow Angels for the social connection.
“I look forward to dealing with the people because we all come from one place, you know?” White said as he held a hot chocolate in one hand and a bag filled with “a little bit of this, a little bit of that” in the other.
The Snow Angels weren’t the only group spreading love on Christmas morning. As the volunteers arrived at Grace Park, music from a speaker across the street filled the air.
Volunteers with In One Piece Ministries were also passing out hot drinks, sandwiches and snacks. They’re at Grace Park every Sunday morning, inviting the homeless to join in a prayer circle or maybe even a little dancing on the sidewalk.
What better day than Christmas to explain what drives them daily.
Said Darlene Bass of Akron: “We’re putting love of Christ into action.”
Paula Schleis can be reached at 330-996-3741 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/paulaschleis.