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Children living in poverty: Navy veteran starts nonprofit to help address financial disparities in Northeast Ohio

Ebony Spano says the military and education helped her get out of poverty. She's now working to fill financial gaps for others through her nonprofit: GROW.

CLEVELAND — The number of children living in poverty in Cleveland could fill the more than 35,000 seats in Progressive Field -- and there would still be 3,500 of those children still waiting to get inside.

The imagery comes out of 2019 census statistics, which reports 46% of kids in Cleveland live in poverty.

Ebony Spano, a Navy veteran of Mayfield Heights, knows their struggle. She grew up facing financial disparities, but says after joining the military and pursuing higher education that she was able to get out of poverty.

Spano, 30, is now a married mother of two -- and through her new nonprofit “Growing Right Over Wealth” (GROW), she’s working to make sure other parents are able to do the same.

“It's a service that's been embedded in me to give to people and to provide for people who may not have it,” Spano says.

She started her nonprofit during the pandemic because she wanted to help fill the gaps in the community caused by disparities due to lack of finances. 

Spano has organized two spring toy giveaways under GROW, with the latest one held at the Miles Shopping Plaza. 10-year-old Ava Thomas, who says she lives in the Miles neighborhood, received a dream catcher thanks to Spano’s efforts.

“It means a lot to me because sometimes I can't afford some things,” Ava says.

A majority of the toys at Spano’s second giveaway were donated by the Cleveland chapter of the Afro Dogs Motorcycle Club. Spano reached out to them and they delivered by helping her reach a goal of getting kids through the pandemic safely.

“They've been virtually learning this whole pandemic that's lasted over a year.  We need to get them out, get them out moving,” says Spano.

The Youngstown and South Euclid native says she believes the pandemic has caused additional financial hardship for moms and dads.

“Parents are trying to figure out how to pay their gas, their electric bill,” Spano says. “There's nothing worse than a look on a child's face when you tell them no because you can't afford it.”

Pandemic hardships are why Bob Nichols, president of the Cleveland Afro Dogs, says the organization volunteered to help Spano provide toys for kids.

“A lot of kids didn’t get Christmas or anything this year from the pandemic," Nichols says. "Parents not working. (We) just have to give something to them, give them something to do.”

Spano even gave away gas cards to mothers to encourage them to bring their children to get a free toy. 

“We want to give people a piece of hope, a ray of sunshine,” Spano says.

Believing it is the people who make the community, Spano continues to enlist an army of volunteers to encourage everyone to join the war against poverty.

The next mission she would like to undertake is providing kids in need with a free summer movie experience to help get them out of the house and into the community.

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