Homeless as a child, area woman gives back

Originally published by Toledo Blade on Dec. 5, 2011. View the original posting.

WOODVILLE, Ohio — At times, Susan Perry slept in a blue Chevrolet station wagon because her family didn’t have anywhere else to go in West Toledo.

The little girl was raised by a single parent who dropped out of high school and tried her best to support her four children by working multiple jobs. By eighth grade, young Susan was placed into foster care in Lucas County.

But even with a childhood that was, at times, troubled, Mrs. Perry was determined to go to college and make a better life for herself. Through it all, she never lost her selfless nature, her loved ones said.

“You wouldn’t know she had hard times,” said her best friend, Beth Nowicki, 55, of Rossford, who has known Mrs. Perry since they were teenagers. “You’d never know she was out of her luck. She’d still help somebody else. She always put the happy face forward. I think that’s just her personality and how she sees life.”

To nobody’s surprise, Mrs. Perry had a new idea how to give back, shortly before her 50th birthday on Dec. 1, 2006.

The bubbly brunette, who teaches at Owens Community College, asked for donated coats, hats, and scarves instead of birthday presents.

The request was a relief for her family members, who said Mrs. Perry was a difficult person to buy gifts for anyway.

“She’ll never say she needs anything,” said Natalie Borrell, a 2000 Perrysburg High School graduate, who now lives outside Cleveland.

Her loved ones obliged, and with about 75 coats in hand, they helped her give them out to people in need in downtown Toledo.

“We started small,” said Ms. Borrell. “We were surprised with how quick people can clean out their closets.”

It was a little chaotic — Mrs. Perry had never done anything like this before — and she laid the coats out on the ground for people to sort through them.

But the feeling that she was somehow making a difference stuck. Mrs. Perry decided to make the coat drive an annual tradition for her birthday.

“It’s a humbling experience to watch other people who don’t have as much as you do and to see the look of relief on their face when they’re going to have a coat for the winter,” said Ms. Borrell, 29, who planned to help her mother again this year on the first two Saturdays this month. “It makes you realize how much you have and to be thankful for that.”

Every year, the volunteer project, which Mrs. Perry dubbed “Susie’s Coats,” grew bigger.

“If I can get 75 [coats], I can get 100. I can get 200. I can get 300,” said Mrs. Perry, a longtime Perrysburg resident who moved to Woodville in Sandusky County six years ago. “I can get 600.”

This year, local businesses donated moving boxes to put the coats in as well as a truck and a trailer to haul them downtown. Her husband Mark Perry’s civic group gave $300 for Mrs. Perry to buy large-size coats — the tricky ones to find — at a big-box retailer.

Mrs. Perry’s 12 second-year students in the Owens’ diagnostic medical sonography program also collected items and then sorted through dozens and dozens of coats to organize the coats by size and gender.

“Everybody thought it was a great idea and were excited to help,” said Owens student Nicole Young, 30, of South Toledo, who contributed 23 coats so far to the drive. “Mrs. Perry, she’s always trying to figure out a way to make everything better. This is a perfect thing for her … She has her whole heart in this.”

In a lab room filled with massage beds and a training manikin where students practice ultrasounds, Mrs. Perry stored several industrial-sized garbage bags in a corner containing about 300 coats.

“Isn’t this fun?” Mrs. Perry said as she showed off a pink little girl’s coat and a warm, puffy man’s coat from the collection that was a few days from delivery.

The coats look stylish, so different from the full-length red coat with gold buttons and a pair of white plastic go-go boots Mrs. Perry remembered receiving from charity when she was about 7. She had felt embarrassed by the adult-sized coat that made her look like Santa Claus.

But Mrs. Perry remembered how much it meant to her mother that her children would be warm that year.

“She was so excited about it,” Mrs. Perry said, recalling her mother’s reaction. “I must have given her a look. The look I got back was ‘Don’t ever be ungrateful for what you have.’”

The birthday tradition will continue this month as Mrs. Perry and the Owens students will give out coats at Michigan Avenue and Adams Street in downtown Toledo.

In future years, she hopes Susie’s Coats will expand into more counties in northwest Ohio.

“We’re all here to try and make a difference and have the best life we can,” said Mrs. Perry, coordinator of the school’s sonography program. “I think it’s our responsibility to help others have the best life they can too.”

Contact Gabrielle Russon at: grusson@theblade.com or 419-724-6026.

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