January 04, 2018 09:47 AM

Actress Erin Cummings was helping her cousin hand out Halloween candy in Detroit when a mother and her two daughters came to the door. The entire family was really upset, Cummings recalls.

“One little girl was shivering and crying and clutching her bare hand with her other mittened hand. And my cousin leaned down and said, ‘Why are you crying? You’re missing a glove? Are you cold?’ ” Cummings tells PEOPLE. “It was very cold that night — like an unusually cold Halloween night — my cousin invited the girls and their mom inside to get warm.”

Cummings’ cousin gave the girl a spare pair of gloves, hugged her and gave her a piece of candy.

The family had been miserable and heading home – but the new gloves changed their mood and they decided to continue trick-or-treating.

The next morning, Cummings says she couldn’t stop thinking that she had to get more gloves and give them to people who need them.

In November 2010, Cummings founded the non-profit, Mittens for Detroit, and within the first four months, she collected and distributed more than 9,000 pairs of gloves.

Actress Erin Cummings
Courtesy Erin Cummings

Cummings was in town filming the cop drama Detroit 1-8-7. When she wasn’t working, Cummings went to hair salons and stores asking them to display mitten collection boxes.

“I was a low woman on the totem poll in the cast so I had a lot of days off,” she says. “We’d have mitten sorting and counting parties at my apartment with a pile of mittens as tall as I am.”

Cummings personally handed out brand new gloves at women’s shelters and to gay and lesbian teens and veterans in need.

Erin Cummings (left)
Courtesy Erin Cummings

“It was during a downtime in our economy. It gave a lot of people a sense of hope,” Cummings says. “They felt like they were able to help someone else at a very low cost. They could buy gloves for not a lot of money and feel like they were making a difference in someone’s live – at least for that winter.”

Now, eight years later, the non-profit she started has distributed more than 200,000 pairs of gloves to those in need. This winter, they hope to distribute 50,000 pairs of brand new, never worn store bought or handmade gloves, says executive director Wendy Shepherd.

Wendy Shepherd
Courtesy Mittens for Detroit

“In this area, we all understand cold hands,” says Shepherd. “We all understand what it’s like to walk from your house to your car and not be able to feel your fingertips.”

Chris Wilinski, a 56-year-old first grade teacher says his students come into the classroom every day complaining about how cold they are.

Courtesy Mittens for Detroit

“The kids would be out at recess and they’d have no gloves,” Wilinski says. “As teachers, we’d go to the Dollar Store and buy gloves for a lot of our kids – and that was, like, a lot of gloves.”

Wilinski spotted a Mittens for Detroit collection box when he was attending a Weight Watchers meeting. (He’s lost 110 pounds!) He emailed Shepherd at Mittens for Detroit, and asked for gloves for his students. She helped him provide gloves to every student in his entire school district in Hamtramck (a city inside Detroit) for the past four years. All 1,500 students get a new pair of gloves.

“The kids really look forward to them,” Wilinski says.

Courtesy Mittens for Detroit

Mittens for Detroit provided gloves and mittens for children at 45 schools last year. As well as working with a network of shelters and agencies that help people who are down on their luck or in transition.

“They’re really helping to warm the hearts and hands of kids and families,” says Holly Gorecki, director of Volunteer & Community Engagement for The Children’s Center. “So many families come to us not wearing coats. They aren’t dressed appropriately for kids to be standing outside in below zero weather waiting for the bus to school.”

Vonna McMickel is a 55-year-old unemployed, single foster mother of three boys and a girl. She first received mittens for her foster kids and herself four years ago.

“They mean a lot to me,” McMickel says. “They keep my boys’ hands warm. We didn’t have any mittens. I needed help.”

Now, she volunteers at the local children’s center giving out mittens to other families.

“Keep ‘em coming because we need them. They’re something I appreciate very much,” McMickel says.

Two months after her 2016 wedding, Cummings was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I wasn’t able to travel while I was undergoing chemo,” she says. “I realized I wasn’t going to be in Detroit as much as I wanted to be able to properly run the organization. After seven years, I took a step back to focus on my health and my new family.”

Late last summer, Cummings stepped down from working with Mittens for Detroit. But, while she and her husband were in Detroit visiting family in December, she planned to buy mittens and drop them in a collection box at Starbucks.

“I want this organization to live on beyond me. And I want other people to continue what we started. Should the day come where I’m able to offer more of my time and be more present, I may embrace that,” says Cummings. “I look forward to the continued warmth of hearts and hands and mittens.”

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