by Erica Peterson
The holidays are a special time for children and their families. But it can be quite a different story for the children of addicts. Families get splintered, and many children end up in foster homes.
Northfield Village resident Dawn Scherma knows all to well how addiction can affect a family. She has custody of her grandson due to her daughter’s heroin addiction. He is 9 years old now, and she’s had custody of him since he was 1.
It was painful watching her daughter in active addiction. “It’s like you’re grieving someone who is still alive,” Scherma said.
Thankfully, their story has a happy ending. Her daughter is five years clean and sober and is a big part of both her son’s and Scherma’s lives. She’s married and has a baby girl, and Scherma is thrilled to have a new grandchild.
But not all families get that happy ending.
“I started thinking about the children that don’t have family to be with around the holidays or for school or things like that,” she said. “My grandson was lucky enough to have family to take him in and raise him, so we thought we would start doing things to help the foster children who have been directly affected by addiction.”
Scherma is the founder and CEO of By the Dawn’s Early Light, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit created in February 2017 and dedicated to supporting children in the foster care system, which is flooded with the children of addicts. It provides the children with school supplies, Christmas presents and other necessities through community donations.
The foundation’s volunteer board includes Northfield Village resident Tammy Lauer as president and Sagamore Hills resident Melissa Wesley, who is vice president.
The group’s name came about thanks to inspiration from Scherma’s grandson. While she was brainstorming names, the 6-year-old was singing the Star-Spangled Banner. “So, he’s the one who came up with it,” she said.
The group first reached out to Summit County Family Services in 2017, offering to purchase Christmas gifts for children in foster care. Family Services was very receptive, coming back later to ask if they would be interested in organizing a holiday party.
By the Dawn’s Early Light got to work, holding toy drives and sending out donation letters. They made sure each child got wrapped gifts and a stocking, each with their names on them and given to them by Santa Claus.
They organized entertainment and food for the party at Mason Elementary School in Akron, including pizza and other food donated by Winking Lizard in Macedonia and desserts donated by several different groups. The nonprofit filled in the holes, purchasing whatever gifts, food or party necessities were needed.
Between the children, their foster parents and some of their birth parents, social workers, magistrates and judges, up to 200 people attended the first party.
“It’s getting larger as we go,” Scherma said.
The group also has held summer cookouts each year at Goodyear Park in Akron, giving the children backpacks filled with school supplies provided through donation drives.
Though the group’s focus initially was on children of addicts, it has expanded to encompass all foster children. It has also expanded geographically, as in 2020, it added Portage and Geauga counties’ foster systems.
The pandemic changed plans for this year’s holiday parties, switching them to a gift delivery to 350 foster children in all three counties. But it didn’t change the community involvement and support.
Scherma said 36 volunteers will work in shifts the weekend of Dec. 12, wrapping more than 800 gifts and labeling them for each child. The Northfield Moose Lodge donated its hall to give the wrappers space to physically distance as they work.
The community also turned out in droves on Dec. 5-6 to donate toys and money to the cause. The Northfield Village Firefighters Association hosted a toy drive in the parking lot of the Target in Macedonia. It raised more than $1,000 in eight hours.
“Between the cash donations and the toys, the squad was stuffed full both days,” Scherma said.
The donated money will be used to purchase toys to cover age groups that did not have enough donations. They often need more items for newborns, she said.
Scherma is grateful for the work of Bob Davet, president of the firefighters association, who has pledged his support of the donation drives as long as he is president.
She is also indebted to the generosity of the community, as the group operates solely from donations.
“I love Nordonia Hills. They have really, really come together for us this year,” she said.
Scherma said By the Dawn’s Early Light plans to reach out to Medina and Lake counties in 2021.
“Our goal is to get into all 88 counties,” she said.
The group is also working on a program called Life After Addiction, which would help those in recovery learn life skills like banking, cooking, nutrition and hygiene.
“Our goal is that these children can get their children back,” Scherma said.
The curriculum has been designed, but the pandemic put plans on hold. Ultimately, she would love to see counties that have drug courts make the course mandatory before recovering parents can get custody of their children.
“That might be a hard one to push, but we’re going to try,” she said. By the Dawn’s Early Light is always looking for board members, donations and other help.
To learn move, visit the website bythedawnsearlylight1.us or @bythedawnsearlylight on Facebook.
Feature image photo caption: Standing in front of Christmas presents collected for foster children are members of the nonprofit By the Dawn’s Early Light: (l-r) Vice President and Sagamore Hills resident Melissa Wesley; President Tammy Lauer; founder and Executive Director Dawn Scherma; Secretary Deanna Marina; and Cheryl Kilroy with marketing. Photo courtesy Dawn Scherma