DERRY, NH – Sara Tofanelli knows what it’s like to be homeless.
The Derry resident says it feels “hopeless,” like “you’re no longer a person.”
She says it can happen to anyone, and that it only takes one wrong turn for events to snowball and lead to the loss of your home, job, car, or other basic necessities.
“I feel like (people’s) opinion would change if they actually knew the struggle behind it. I am what a lot of people hate when they think of a homeless addict,” Tofanelli says.
A recovering addict for the last 18 months, Tofanelli spends much of her time helping others who are in the same spot she once was. She founded Mission Unified Impact in 2020, a one-person organization that supports Manchester’s homeless community and those in surrounding cities.
Through her Facebook page and other outreach efforts, people bring her clothes, food, and other supplies, which she stores at her Derry apartment. She then organizes them and delivers them where they’re most needed. Rather than donating to organizations and shelters, she directly hands out clothing, blankets and other supplies to homeless encampments, usually in Manchester, Nashua and Boston.
About three to five times a week, Tofanelli drives to Boston to pick up donations and bring them to Manchester and other sites where she knows people might need help.
“I also help people who reach out that aren’t homeless but struggling and need items out of Londonderry, Derry, Danville, Salem, Haverhill, etc.,” she says.
Tofanelli’s personal journey into homelessness came little by little.
She enlisted in the Marine Corps in 2010, but Tofanelli says her military career was cut short after she was raped by three male Marines. She says she tried to speak out about it while in the military, but was separated from her sexual assault victim advocate. Tofanelli says she realized that her rapists would be protected, not her.
“I went deeper and deeper into addiction over the next few years after I got out of the military, because there was no resources,” Tofanelli says.
She spent time in prison on various drug-related charges, and says many veterans face the same fate when they leave the military.
“As a veteran, I came home to the streets. I came home homeless. I didn’t have any help. I was just an angry veteran, dumped on the street. That’s a lot of people. That’s a lot of veterans’ stories,” she says.
In 2015, Tofanelli’s lawyer, also a Marine Corps veteran, helped her get into a Worcester recovery program. There, she got sober and learned how to cut hair.
For a time, she lived in the homeless population in Revere, and started giving free haircuts to homeless or needy veterans. She returned to prison from mid-2016 until February, 2017, completing parole that June.
But when she completed her recovery program, she ran into obstacles trying to find work.
“I was not employable. I was a convicted felon. And nobody really wanted to give me a chance,” she says.
At every stage of her (recovery), Tofanelli says someone always got her back on track, like the woman who went to “every court date” she had.
”I don’t even know her name. And she fought like hell to get me into a program and out of prison,” she says.
She began to use her personal story to motivate others to donate their time or money.
“I stayed clean by helping other people kind of remember where I came from, and how easy it is to go back,” she says.
In 2017, a veteran at the Revere Veterans Office finally helped Tofanelli start her disability claim.
“He started getting me connected with services for everything I’d struggled for almost a decade up to that point,” including being raped while in the military.
While many people inspired her to give back, getting Mission Unified Impact off the ground took time and trust.
After attending barbering school in late 2019, Tofanelli began offering free haircuts at a Boston veterans shelter. In 2020, when the pandemic hit and public buildings closed, Tofanelli still felt there was more to be done.
“So I went wireless with all my barber equipment and just started pulling up to people, unhoused folks in Boston, and just asking, ‘Do you need a haircut?’ ” she remembers.
She continued to be motivated by the barriers she faced as a homeless person with a prison record.
“It was being told ‘no,’ and being told, I’m not employable, or I’m a felon and being turned away job after job. That’s what drove me just to open my business and hire people in the same position that are also considered unemployable.”
Slowly, people began to trust her.
“They saw that I actually came back when I said that I would. People started asking if I knew anybody with, say, a pair of shoes, saying, ‘Can you use shirts? Can you use XYZ?’ That was essentially the beginning point of my organization,” she says.
Above: Sara Tofanelli shows her tattoos, some of which she’s gotten to remember friends who have died through overdose or other reasons. Photo/Emily Reily
Mission Unified Impact took off in Boston in mid-2020; that December, she moved to Manchester to continue her work.
Ward 3 Alderman Pat Long says he met Tofanelli, whom he calls a “diamond in the rough,” when she first attended Board of Aldermen meetings about a year and a half ago. He says even then she was vocal about getting rights for homeless people.
“She’s had it rough herself. So I absolutely give her credit for stepping in and not just complaining,” Long says. “These are the kind of people in the City of Manchester we need.”
Long notes that Tofanelli has built trust with people in the homeless community.
“They know Sara. They think highly of her. They have a lot of respect for her. She’s a major bridge to the homeless population,” Long says.
As a State Representative, Long says he’s been in touch with the Secretary of State’s office to help Tofanelli gain nonprofit status for Mission Unified Impact.
“It does help with write-offs — that would help her immensely. And she can also request funding from other entities.”
One person Tofanelli has helped says she’s an inspiration.
Lynn Ann, who can’t reveal her last name, met Tofanelli through a social media community page in 2020, and the two became friends.
“We talked for like an hour in freezing cold. She’s an amazing person and her own personal story is motivating.”
Lynn Ann says Tofanelli knew she wasn’t likely to ask for help during the Christmas holiday, so Tofanelli took it upon herself to help get presents for Lynn Ann’s two kids, ages 6 and 14.
“She said, ‘Hey, I know you’re never going to ask for help. And I know that this year especially has been hard, and you’re (financially) struggling. I have a lady that wants to go shopping for the kids for Christmas. Can you send me their sizes and what they want?’ says Lynn Ann.
“At first, I didn’t want to take the help. Because I felt bad, obviously, because there’s people that need it more. And my kids are pretty understanding. They’re like, ‘Okay, this is how much we get.’ ”
Lynn Ann says Sara knows when a person needs help but is afraid to ask for it.
“She was like, ‘Listen, I know you. And I know that you won’t ask. So I’m doing this for you.’ It was really touching,” Lynn Ann says.
Lynn Ann’s kids asked for basic things like pillows, comforters, a curling iron and a Lego set, “things that weren’t probably the most exciting thing in the world. But they were things they wanted,” she says.
The woman who contacted Tofanelli also wanted to start a friendship with Lynn Ann – another reason Tofanelli connected them. The sentiment was not lost on Lynn Ann.
“That inspires me even more to be a better me,” Lynn Ann says. “My kids don’t know the depth of what Sara was able to help me with. Sara is able to connect people and see the good and the positive.”
“She’s just such an awesome person to begin with. What she did for my kids for Christmas was incredible,” she adds.
Lynn Ann says she’s encouraged her daughter to help as well, and that she’s delivered holiday cards at long-term treatment centers, domestic violence shelters and county nursing homes.
“We don’t have a lot to give back monetarily. But we know that people have helped us. So in turn, we help others. After I get off the phone with you today, we’re going to help a lady paint her bathroom that her child was abused in,” Lynn Ann says.
Tofanelli says her organization has put a financial toll on her that’s “well into the thousands,” including expenses like gas and mileage for delivering donations.
To offset costs, Tofanelli also has three other businesses: the dog-waste removal business Go Poo Go, a car interior detailing business called Marine Clean Detailing, and a leaf-removal business.
Tofanelli remembers people she’s met who felt like they were out of hope.
“A kid walked up to me completely broken asking for help. He had nowhere to go. I got him into respite. A woman got accepted into a female shelter (but) had no way down there, and she would have lost the bed. So I drove her out at like 11 o’clock at night.”
Tofanelli also remembers the homeless woman she passed every Sunday morning when she worked as a waitress and bartender in Boston. Tofanelli got the woman a Panera gift card weekly and sat with her before she went to work.
One day, the woman wasn’t there; Tofanelli doesn’t know what happened to her.
“I still think of her. She told me at the time (I) was the only thing she looked forward to each week and lived for. She never knew, but she was keeping me here and sober too when I was struggling,” Tofanelli says.
At her Mission Unified Impact Facebook page, Tofanelli posts remembrances about people who have died while homeless or have suffered through drug addiction. In March, she posted a message about Tricia, who was pictured in a wheelchair holding a sign that says “safe shelter now.” Tofanelli wrote that Tricia died while staying at Families in Transition, a shelter Tofanelli is openly critical of.
She says that just because someone is homeless, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad person. “People never gave up on me. I know sometimes you help somebody and it doesn’t work out. But for that one person, or even for those 20 people that it doesn’t work out for, it can work out for one person.”
Tofanelli is still working on her nonprofit status, but says that will take more time and money, although Alderman Long believes with a focused effort it could get done quickly. Long, who has been down some dark roads himself, recognizes the need in Tofanelli to give back. It’s the familiar call to service that those in recovery, including himself, say reminds them of where they have been and why they work hard to stay sober. For someone like Tofanelli, her drive and the urgency of her mission create hard edges, some might say a protective shell.
“She doesn’t show her heart, but when you get to know her, you see a big heart,” Long says.
Tofanelli says she would love to own a house one day, where she and her three dogs, Jakey, Valor and Victory, would have more room.
“I get asked all the time, ‘Why do you do this?’ And it’s because I’m no different than you, other than one bad decision away,” Tofanelli says. “If people just took the time to ask ‘How are you,’ …. you could be saving someone’s life.”
Visit Mission Unified Impact’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=mission%20unified%20impact. There, Tofanelli posts items of clothing and food people need the most. Those interested can donate via Venmo (@MissionUI22) or CashApp ($MissionUI22). Call (857) 333-4501 for more information.
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