PHOENIX — Sheila Dion thinks about Erin Maxwell often.
Dion is the founder of Erin’s Angels, a backpack program that provides food over the weekends and breaks for Phoenix Central School District students in need. The program takes its name from Erin Maxwell, a child who was killed in 2008 after suffering food insecurity and abuse at home.
Dion and Phoenix Village Administrator James Lynch will honor Maxwell’s memory by proclaiming Thursday “Erin Maxwell Day” during a ceremony at 5:30 p.m. at the food pantry inside Michael A. Maroun Elementary School. What would have been Maxwell’s 23rd birthday will be marked with a solemn reminder and the mission that what happened to the young girl must never happen again.
“I think of her often just because the extenuating situation she was in. I hope that no other child ever has to live under those conditions,” Dion told The Palladium-Times. “She was a little girl who one of her teachers recently told me was always smiling and had such drive to come and do the chorus concerts after school. She wanted to be involved in her community. It’s a way to make sure she’s not forgotten.”
Maxwell was 11 when she was strangled to death in 2008. Her step-brother was later convicted of causing her death and sentenced to state prison. At the time of her death, Maxwell lived in a home in Palermo with more than 100 cats and other animals, piles of garbage and cat feces, and locks on the outside of her bedroom door.
Dion started working in the Phoenix district shortly after Maxwell’s death and remembers hearing how people tried to help, whether it was pooling together money for her lunch account or the nurse providing clean clothes for her every morning.
The stories affected Dion as a mother and a person.
“She lived her life hungry,” Dion said of Maxwell. “We should never forget that there’s others out there like that who are hungry too. I feel like this is a way to spread more awareness about it.”
Lynch remembered Maxwell going to school with his child, and driving past the Maxwell household on the way to his camp.
“It’s a tragic situation, but there’s a great cause behind it with Erin’s Angels,” Lynch said.
Dion started Erin’s Angels, a not-for-profit community and advocacy group, three years ago. Every week volunteers pack bags full of food for students — primarily in the elementary school — to take home each weekend. Each bag includes a breakfast, lunch, dinner and two snacks for each day.
“Whenever a tragedy happens in a small community, it brings the community together,” Dion said. “I feel like our community was bonded under these circumstances. Having a way to now reflect on her life and be able to do something positive as a result is really meaningful to the people in the community.”
Stacy Alvord, the commissioner of the Oswego County Department of Social services, said the Maxwell case led to the creation of the Oswego County Child Protection Advisory Council, which still meets regularly a decade later. She also said there are more mental health services co-located in schools than a decade ago, as well as outreach to families in need of support.
According to Alvord, more than 3,000 reports of child maltreatment are investigated in Oswego County each year. Anyone can report suspected child abuse and neglect by calling the New York State Central Registry at 1-800-32-3720.
“I am grateful to the Phoenix community for this remembrance of Erin,” Alvord said. “Erin’s death brought together a grieving community to build programs and partnerships that strengthened our community’s response to child abuse and neglect.”
Dion hopes Erin Maxwell Day raises awareness for people battling food insecurity and other problems at home.
“I just want people to know that her community will never forget her and never forget what happened,” Dion said. “We’re turning something that was very sad and negative into a positive.”