Debra Shipley Roffo started Angel in Action RI back in March, which formed with the goal of providing small acts of kindness to hardworking families who have come upon difficult times, whether those difficulties stem from a lost job, a sudden bout of sickness or a high volume of bills that render them living paycheck to paycheck.
As of today, Angel in Action is an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with more than 700 followers on Facebook – many of whom are active contributors, and are given the honorary title of “Angels.”
Roffo will often post about an individual or family who is in need of something – it could be school clothes, a bed or box spring, food or winter coats – and the Angels spring into action. Usually within a week at the most, the person has what they needed, often without knowing that anybody was aware of that need, as the people who receive gifts and donations are nominated by family, friends and coworkers.
For Roffo, focusing on those who straddle the line between “making it” and struggling was an important cause to become involve with, as these people are often proud and unwilling or unaware of how to seek out any help for their situation. They’re the people who fall through the cracks of local and state aid.
These struggles are felt especially hard during the holidays, where large meals and the impetus to give gifts put additional strain on already tight budgets. To assist with this, Roffo started a holiday food drive in October to assemble all-in-one Thanksgiving kits – stuffed with all the fixings needed for a full Thanksgiving dinner, from appetizers to dessert – which would be given to families in need of some help.
“The hardworking people, they don't reach out because they don't know where to go and don't know the system,” she said. “They're struggling and they don't know how to reach out. Sometimes all it takes is giving them a basket for the holidays, so that they don't have to buy food for that meal, to help them get back on track, especially if they're living paycheck to paycheck.”
Roffo reached out to local businesses in West Warwick, Coventry, Warwick and Cranston to set up collection bins for non-perishable donations. Thanks in part to a donation of 25 turkeys from her best friend, Gel Penta of Gel’s Kitchen, Roffo was able to assemble 25 fully-stuffed Thanksgiving meal kits, which were delivered to their recipients with the help of student volunteers on Sunday.
“I really didn’t expect the outcome I got. It was overwhelming,” she said. “We did very well.”
Roffo said that part of her motivation for starting her own nonprofit came after participating in other charitable endeavors over the years. She said that while those organizations did great work, she would get discouraged at how the people who she was assisting seemed to come back every year without showing any improvement in their situation. She felt by focusing more on groups of people who are just getting by, she could have a greater impact.
“These people are just so overwhelmed that somebody is willing to help them because they always feel like there’s somebody there who needs more help than they do,” she said.
She has had many successful missions in the nonprofit’s short life already, including getting a bed for a veteran who was unable to afford a new one, and who suffered from back and hip problems as a result. She also assisted a child with cerebral palsy get a new iPad – which is how he communicated – when his broke.
However, her most impressive feat yet might be gathering support to send a family of eight to Disney World after the father was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“He had worked hard his whole life, and he said his one regret was never taking his family on vacation,” she said. Thanks to the Angels fundraising through online campaigns and a yard sale, the family will be going to Disney in April.
In a way, Roffo’s inclination to help others came from her now-deceased mother, Ann Shipley.
“She knew what it was like to struggle, and when she was able to pay it back she took in teenage kids,” Roffo recalled. “I had a stranger at my dinner table every night. I didn’t know who these people were but, if they were hungry and my mother knew it, they were at the dinner table.”
Now that the Thanksgiving food drive is complete, Roffo isn’t wasting any time gearing up for the rest of the holiday season. She held a bake sale to raise money to put together Christmas baskets in the very same parking lot where she staged the deliveries for the Thanksgiving baskets.