SHERIDAN — She came to Sheridan with $11 in her pocket and two lawn chairs packed in the back of her beat up Land Rover with four bald tires. She came with four boys, ages 1 to 9, and a baby girl on the way.
The lawn chairs were a gift, and she kept them to remind her of her roots, scarred as those roots may be. The Land Rover remains parked in her carport, broken down, but she can’t get rid of it either.
Kelley Mason fled a life of domestic violence in Reno and came to Sheridan in December 2010 because she had heard it was a nice community with good schools and a low crime rate. Destitute, she visited churches and charity organizations to seek help.
Two years later, Mason was pursuing degrees in business science and victim advocacy at Sheridan College. She was making a life for herself and decided it was time to give back to the community that had given her so much.
In December 2012, she posted on Sheridan UpCycle — a Facebook buying and trading site — to ask if there was anyone out there who needed help in some way.
Messages flooded her Facebook inbox.
Yes, people needed help.
‘My inbox just blew up’
Mason helped a few families at Christmastime and decided to post again in January.
“I posted on UpCycle and said, ‘Hey, I’m looking to help a couple of families in need of things.’ I said I don’t have a ton of money but I can pull something together. My inbox just blew up, and I realized then that me as one person wasn’t enough. I got so many emails it just broke my heart,” Mason said.
With the popularity of sites like UpCycle, Mason felt that Facebook would be an efficient way to connect people needing help with people who wanted to help. She started the Sheridan Angels group and established a few ground rules: people asking for help must really need it; people providing help must do so for free; respect each other; and, when possible, pay it forward by helping someone else.
Mason thought she might have a couple hundred members by the end of the year. After only four months, the site has 1,280 members, and it grows every day.
On average, four or five people are helped per day, but Mason doesn’t really keep track. She has converted her laundry room into a storage area for donated items — food, clothing, kitchen goods — and that is spilling into her family room. Other angels, as members who help are called, have provided storage space and freezer space for donated meat.
‘It takes a real man to ask for help’
Joe Williamson lost his job in February. In mid-March his wife — who was 14 weeks pregnant — had to have her appendix removed. As the bills came in, the funds got tied up, and Williamson couldn’t afford to pay the electric bill.
He sought help at various agencies and found none. In a moment of desperation, he posted a plea on Facebook, and a friend told him to contact the Sheridan Angels.
“Kelley told me it takes a real man to ask for help,” Williamson said.
The angels raised money to pay his electric bill, and provided diapers and dog and cat food. They helped him find odd jobs, and he now has a job opportunity on an oil rig in June. Williamson looks forward to the day he can pay it forward.
“I would love to be one of those people who are changing someone’s life,” he said.
Nickola Peckinpaugh is a single mom of seven kids ranging in age from 6 to 30. She originally joined Sheridan Angels as an angel, donating gift cards and storing meat in her freezer, but about a month ago, the tables turned.
Peckinpaugh used to be a heroin addict. She’s been clean for 24 years, but her teeth have been rotted and infected since she quit. In April, doctors told her the antibiotics she used to control the infections would no longer work. Another infection could lead to a fatal heart attack or stroke within three months. All of her teeth had to be extracted.
Peckinpaugh posted on Sheridan Angels asking for prayers for a friend who was dying and needed to find a home for her three younger children. The post was flooded with comments of support and wishes to help. Humbled, Peckinpaugh posted again saying she was the one who needed help. The angels raised money to help pay the dentist bill for the surgical removal of her teeth.
“The support and prayers of everybody saved my life,” Peckinpaugh said. “I get to hug my kids for a long time now because this infection is out of me.”
With her dentures in, Peckinpaugh is happy to smile a wide, toothy smile without shame. She has even scheduled her family for a new family portrait.
Feeding the heart
Marci DeWitt moved to Sheridan in April. She joined Sheridan Angels because she had a bunch of stuff she no longer needed and wanted to donate to someone in need.
“I could have easily sold everything, but I’ve been in that position where you’re not sure how you’re putting the next meal on the table or how you will clothe your child,” DeWitt said. “I still struggle; I’m a single mom, but I knew I could pay it forward and help those less fortunate than me.”
As a single mom, DeWitt knows what it’s like to work two jobs and still live paycheck to paycheck. She knows what it’s like to make just enough to not qualify for state assistance.
“Sheridan Angels is not a hand out; it’s a hand up. It reaches those who are falling through the cracks,” DeWitt said.
Sometimes people just need some clothes for their baby or some food because of a lost job or unexpected bill. That’s the beauty of Sheridan Angels, Jenny Hanson said.
Hanson is a self-described “keeper.” When she heard of a woman who needed clothes for her three children, she knew she could outfit them all with the clothing she had kept from her own two kids. She contacted the woman and delivered three garbage bags of clothes.
Shortly after that, she heard about Sheridan Angels and joined to help wherever and whenever she could — be it gathering pots and pans for a kitchen or giving food to someone.
“It’s just little things like that,” Hanson said. “It’s not like I’m on the site daily trying to save the world. That feeling when you are walking away from helping someone, that’s the best feeling in the world.”
Mason calls it feeding the heart.
“I’d rather someone give a donation to a person in need directly so they’re hands on, too,” she said. “I try to keep everybody completely involved in the group rather than just being the one who hands out donations because that doesn’t feed their heart.”
Mason has a “more the merrier” attitude about Sheridan Angels, but the growth has also been a challenge, she said.
There will always be those people who abuse the system. She has seen people beg for items on Sheridan Angels only to turn around and sell them on UpCycle. There are drug abusers and others who have no interest in bettering themselves. And there are the takers.
“You get the ones that just come over and take things. They don’t say thank you, don’t say anything, really. They just expect it. That’s hard to take, too,” Mason said. “But then you get the ones who jump up and down, or cry, or hug you. Ultimately I know the good way outweighs the bad.”
Still, Mason and the other angels have to walk the line between generosity and discernment, between trust and getting taken.
If kids are involved, Mason will always help. But the angels have turned people away, and it’s caused blowback. Mason gets nasty messages in her inbox, and it breaks her heart, she said.
“That’s what happens when you try to make a movement or create change,” Mason said. “It’s hard. My intentions are nothing but genuine. I just want to help people get back up on their feet like I did, and I hate it when they attack me because I don’t have a mean bone in my body. I mean, I don’t even own a fly swatter.”
Mason deals with negativity by going out and helping someone else. That gets her centered again on the reason she started Sheridan Angels. She has even started a storage box for gluten-free food so the angels can meet the individual needs of even more people.
Angels take wing
Kindness is contagious. As angels have told friends and family about what they are doing, interest has spread, Mason said. In the four months since Sheridan Angels started, similar Facebook groups have popped up around the nation in Casper, Gillette, Montana, Iowa, Texas and California.
As Sheridan Angels membership pushes 1,300, Mason has realized she needs help to keep the movement going strong.
“There’s not enough of me anymore,” she said.
Fellow angels are stepping up to help with administration, storage and operations. The angels will have a float in the Sheridan-Wyo-Rodeo parade to raise awareness. They are hosting a garage sale to raise funds for a back to school event in August that will provide 400 or more backpacks filled with school supplies for needy families. They hope to obtain an outside storage space for donated items.
But most of all, the Sheridan Angels hope to help one person at a time to make Sheridan an even better place to live.
As Hanson put it, “When you’re just going about your day, living your life, you don’t think of who’s out there struggling. Having this site for people to know they’re not alone, to know it’s not horrible to ask for help, to see that there’s no judgment, is great. I just hope the idea remains that it’s a pay it forward thing. When you need help, you get it, and when you can give help, you give it.”
Sheridan Angels is hosting a garage sale from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. June 7-8 at the corner of Highland Avenue and 10th Street. The angels will also be collecting school supplies to fill more than 400 backpacks for needy families for a Back to School event in August. Bring school supply donations to the garage sale or connect with the angels at: www.facebook.com/groups/sheridanangels/.