TROY — Anastasia Lewitinn turns to butterflies in times of trouble.
It’s a metaphor she uses to explain those serendipitous moments the help pull her up — a person, a story, a phone call. The fluttering flight of a butterfly inspires writers to string words into prose. In Lewitinn’s case, it guides her into transforming a community for the better.
“You ever walk into something, and it was meant to be?” Lewitinn asks a rhetorical question. The 26-year-old Clifton Park native moved to Troy several years ago. She earned a hair styling license, then worked a few jobs. On occasion, when times between work and raising two kids allowed for it, she would volunteer at not-for-profits. Three years ago, however, she walked into something; the attic of her apartment house.
She volunteered to help her landlord clean out the attic. It wasn’t what she anticipated. What she came across was boxes and boxes of greeting cards, tablecloths, napkins and other paper products. The woman who collected the items had worked at a store. Lewitinn believes the holiday themed items were due to be thrown out, and the woman could not bear to waste it. “I walked in to maybe $4,000 worth of napkins, and I just started giving them out. And, it started to become what I was known for.”
Lewitinn started assembling care packages into small paper bags — napkins, toothbrushes, soaps. In the early morning, she would leave these small, inconspicuous brown paper bags on the front stoop of each of her neighbors. Then, she’d sit by the window and wait.
Downtown Troy is in the midst of revitalization. Real estate moguls are coming in and investing into potential apartments and condominiums for a generation throwing away the house with the white picket fence dream for an urban lifestyle where one can work, live and play within a few city blocks. But, outside River Street and Monument Square, people still see a struggle to make ends meet.
According to The New York State Community Action Association’s (NYSCAA) latest annual edition of the New York State Poverty Report, the Empire State is on par with the national poverty rate of 15.5 percent. Rensselaer County’s rate falls below that average rate. In fact, based on percentage, Rensselaer’s 12.45 percent rate is among the lowest in New York. It ranks 47th out of New York’s 62 counties.
Nonetheless, Rensselaer has more than 19,000 impoverished people, placing it 23rd in the state. Lewitinn wasn’t cognizant of those numbers when she stepped outside her doorway. In her mind, everyone could use a pick-me-up. One by one she’d see someone look curiously down at this bag. Some looked around as if it was a prank. Others, she could see smile after peeking inside.
Before long, Butterfly Wings was born.
Lewitinn started Butterfly Wings last year out of the Troy Innovation Garage. It’s a paper pantry, which affords people in need to obtain household items that range from toilet paper and personal hygiene items, to cleaning supplies and baby goods. “And, a few other randoms that come through,” she said.
Whatever Lewitinn can carry in her car, she will take back to Butterfly Wings. Up until recently, that meant crowding a small workspace at the Troy Innovation Garage. As word of her services traveled around Troy, the number of people seeking assistance grew to a number she did not anticipate. On some days, her visitors would number at nearly 100. She was growing out of her space.
Christine Baxter grew up in Albany outside of the Pine Bush forest, home of the Karner blue butterfly. But, she didn’t grow fond of butterflies until her husband passed away a few years ago. “After my husband passed away, butterflies became a very big part of my life.”
Baxter has a masters in ministry, and is a member of Christ Church on 35 State Street in Troy. Occasionally, she’s able to step in for Reverend Dr. Judith Johnson-Siebold. Shortly after earning her degree, Baxter said she was surfing Facebook when she came across Butterfly Wings. “I have to find out what this is about,” she said.
“I met this young lady who is full of ambition and full of heart and full of passion,” Baxter said, recalling her meeting with Lewitinn last winter. “She’s just on fire.”
Baxter was instantly impressed with the progress Lewitinn had made, establishing the not-for-profit, winning a local business improvement contest and finding office space. But, Baxter could see she needed a helping hand. She decided to donate a year of her time to help.
When Lewitinn needed a new place to house operations, Baxter stepped up to speak with her church’s administrative council. With them, she shared Butterfly Wings’ mission statement, “to educate and empower the people because everyone deserves a chance to fly.” A mission that fit in with that of the United Methodist Church.
Today, Butterfly Wings resides within the basement of the church. The paper pantry helps families from Troy and surrounding communities supplement where paychecks and state assistance programs fall short. As Baxter points out, New York state’s WIC program helps with getting food on the table, but can not go towards buying diapers. The state’s poverty rate among families with children and with a woman listed as the head of household is 38.4 percent, more than double than that of the state and national level.
“I’ve always had that heart for helping people,” said Lewitinn. “This is my profession. I thought about it … what if I gave up? What if I said I’m going to be a stay-at-home mom? I’ve done what I’ve done. I’ve done amazing things. Something wouldn’t let me. It just fell into place. Every time I thought about giving this up, it just grew bigger and better, and more help came. More volunteers came. Honestly, I just followed the butterflies. It sounds so silly, but every time I thought about giving up, I would see a butterfly.”
More importantly, she now has other people looking for butterflies.
For more information about Butterfly Wings, visit http://butterflywings.life/about/. To make an appointment, call Christine J. Baxter at (518) 337-8424.
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.