Erin Cummings’ Charity Provides Warmth for Detroiters

A Big Thumbs Up: Actress Erin Cummings is still giving a helping hand to Mittens for Detroit, a charity she founded that provides warmth for needy children and adults
Cummings with Tigers mascot Paws – the Tigers made a collection last year during their Winter Caravan (left);  Erin Cummings and Detroit 1-8-7 co-star Natalie Martinez took mittens to Latino Family Services in Detroit (right).

A moment can be a magical thing. A single act of kindness, a flash of genuine compassion, can inspire an individual to greater heights, alter the course of a life — even make a visitor fall in love with Detroit.

Consider actress Erin Cummings. (Yes, guys, we know. But try to focus.) While most of her belongings are in Los Angeles, Cummings lived nine months in New Zealand playing Sura, devoted and sexy wife of the title character on the Starz cable drama Spartacus: Blood and Sand. She’s currently attempting to grasp the rhythms of New York, where she’s co-starring in the new CBS fall series Made in Jersey (Channel 62 in Detroit). Yet despite the nomadic nature of her profession, the time she spent absorbing Motown as Dr. Abbey Ward in the tragically short-lived ABC police saga Detroit 1-8-7 apparently left an indelible impression on her heart. Cummings can’t forget the Motor City, thanks in part to one extraordinary moment of caring.

It occurred Halloween night, 2010. Cummings was at the Southfield home of Kathi Moss, the cousin through marriage she never knew she had before coming to Detroit, helping to pass out treats at the front door. A mother arrived with her daughters. The youngest was crying because the night was brisk and she had lost a mitten. Instinctively, Moss went into the house, produced a pair of mittens she keeps “in case anyone’s cold,” and handed them to the child. Cummings was touched. “She thought it was this monumental thing, and to me it was just what I do,” recalls Moss, a pediatric nurse. “I was stunned she was so moved by it.”

“It was that small act of kindness, seeing the ripple effect,” says Cummings, 35. “This girl is crying on Halloween and her mother is distraught. Now, because of a pair of mittens, all the girls are happy, a mother is able to enjoy her children, the memory of this Halloween will be a happy one instead of a cold or miserable one.”

At that moment, Mittens for Detroit was born. To date, Cummings’ community initiative — whose only mission is to collect and distribute new, unused mittens and gloves to children and adults in need — has gathered more than 10,000 pairs of warming hand helpers.

Her first move was to contact Detroit publicist Jason Brown, a man she knew only via Twitter through their mutual love of cupcakes. (Brown’s clients include the Just Baked Cupcakes chain.) “I knew he was familiar with a lot of things around town, so I just called and said, ‘What do you think?’ ” she says. “He said, ‘I think it’s a great idea, and you’re going to need a website!’ ” Brown paired her with a web designer who constructed the uplifting site virtually overnight.

Illustration by Jen Hamilton

Cummings then began talking to everyone she met around Detroit. “I said, ‘The goal is really simple, I want to get gloves and give them to people who need them; could you help me?’ ” she explains. One chance encounter landed her a face-to-face meeting at the Michigan Box Company in Detroit, where 200 drop boxes were fabricated for the cause. Further conversations got the boxes placed in diverse locations such as ACO Hardware stores and Emagine Theatres.

Then she made in-person visits to such charitable organizations as Covenant House Michigan, COTS (Coalition on Temporary Shelter), and the Michigan Veterans Foundation to ensure the mittens got into — and onto — the right hands. “I could have just driven around giving gloves to people, but why would anyone have reason to trust me?” she asks. Among the agencies she charmed was the North Woodward Community Foundation, which placed Mittens under its 503(c) umbrella so contributions are tax deductible.

Cummings launched Mittens during a period of considerable personal hardship. First, of course, was Detroit 1-8-7’s cancellation. “When a show’s been canceled, it’s like going through a breakup,” she says. “And you were 100 percent the one who was dumped.” Then her finances went in the Dumpster.

“My 2011 was very dark, in part because I had a business manager who was very unethical,” Cummings says. “It was that classic story of an actor who gets a job, makes money, then wakes up one day and not only is broke, but in debt. That was me! I mean, there’s a reason why my mother is my business manager now.” To compound matters, Andy Whitfield, who starred as Spartacus to Cummings’ Sura, died that September. “We knew from the very beginning that the show would fail if the love between Spartacus and Sura was not believable,” she says. “When Andy died, I allowed Sura to die with him.”

She has channeled her off-camera energies into Mittens, and as its third winter approaches, an increasing number of local companies are gathering donations of mittens or cash from their employees during the holidays. One health class at Troy’s Boulan Park Middle School raised enough money last year to donate 400 pairs. But why is Cummings doing this? And why Detroit?

“I think that the combination of the devastation the city has gone through and the mistakes of the past that people are trying very hard to rectify, there’s still a spirit there,” she says. “Every person I met was so unlike the stereotypes I had heard. That spirit of Detroit that people talk about — it’s still there. That’s what is exciting to me. That’s what makes me want to continue learning about the city.

“It also helps that I’ve established a family there. [Dr. George Blum, a local pediatrician, is Moss’ father.] I’m from Texas, but I go back to Huntsville once a year. I go to Detroit once a month. And the charity isn’t paying for that. Last year when I was broke, I still managed to scrape together enough to get the cheapest flight so I could continue helping the city in my small way.

“Now when people ask, ‘Where are you from?’ I say, ‘I’m from Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York.’ Because that’s my existence.”