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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, Susan 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 as a child,” said her best friend, Beth Nowicki, who has known Susan since they were teenagers. “You’d never know she was homeless and in foster care. 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, Susan Perry had a new idea how to give back, shortly before her 50th birthday on Dec. 1, 2006.

The bubbly brunette asked for donated coats, hats, and scarves instead of birthday presents. The request was a relief for her family members, who said Susie was a difficult person to buy gifts for anyway.

“She’ll never say she needs anything,” said Natalie Borrell, her daughter and 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 Natalie. “We were surprised with how quick people can clean out their closets.”

It was a little chaotic — Susan 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. Susan 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 Natalie, who planned to help her mother again every year on the first two Saturdays in December. “It makes you realize how much you have and to be thankful for that.”

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

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 Susan remembered how much it meant to her mother that her children would be warm that year.

“She was so excited about the red coat,” Susan 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 continues every year and each December, Susie  along with her other volunteers provide free warm apparel, unconditionally, to anyone in need in NW Ohio.

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

Susan’s personal statement: “When a child feels warm, they feel safe and when they feel safe, they are much more hopeful about their tomorrow.”