Each December, as the deep chill of winter settles in across Northeast Ohio, Eric Jones prepares for the most important party of the year.
On December 5, more than 1,000 holiday visitors are set to roam the halls of Jones’ Fairlawn Heights home, which has been meticulously adorned with displays of holiday splendor.
Today, the Sugar Plum Tour is the fund’s signature event, typically bringing in more than $150,000 in ticket sales and philanthropic donations annually. But in 2001, Jones wasn’t so sure the event could garner public support in Akron.
“When I asked people to open their homes for [the first]Sugar Plum Tour, I was turned down because of the cause,” he says. “Now, I have people asking me to be on the tour. Over 20 years, if you look at how LGBTQ+ causes [are viewed], I’ve watched it transform.”
Keeping LGBTQ+ resources local
Two decades ago, Jones says he and other members of Akron’s LGBTQ+ community often donated to the Human Rights Campaign, a national nonprofit then lobbying for the legalization of LGBTQ+ marriages and civil unions.
But Jones, the owner and president of Akron-based design firm Jones Group Interiors, wanted to find a way to create and sustain local resources and programs for LGBTQ+ people.
“We realized all that money was going to [Washington] D.C.,” he says. “But Akron had this great, quiet gay community — and it could be thriving.”
So in the fall of 2000, Jones helped launch a year-long campaign to establish the Gay Community Endowment Fund. By 2001, founding members had landed on a signature fundraising event: a ticketed tour of unique Akron homes — each filled with dazzling ornaments and holiday trappings.
In its first year, the Sugar Plum Tour featured five homes and raised more than $13,000.
Jones was thrilled, and within a few years, the fund awarded its first grants to four Akron area nonprofits, choosing to support an LGBTQ+ anti-violence initiative and a stage production of “Angel’s in America,” among several projects.
Today, the fund totals around $2 million, and has dispersed more than $630,000 in LGBTQ+ specific grants to date — a number that Jones says still astounds him.
Making a difference
While life-saving resources and programs for LGBTQ+ people have become more accessible to Northeast Ohioans over the last two decades, Jones says creating and sustaining spaces and programs that empower and connect LGBTQ+ people is still a vital part of the fund’s mission: advancing a lived equality for all LGBTQ+ people in the Greater Akron area.
“It’s a cause that’s near and dear to me,” Jones says. “And the need is still so real.”
In the last three years alone, the tour has helped fund and support legal name-change clinics for LGBTQ+ people, housing assistance for LGBTQ+ youth, and the creation of Akron Children’s Hospital’s new Center for Gender Affirming Medicine.
Most recently, grantees have included Camp Lilac — an overnight summer camp where young LGBTQ+ people are able to build strong support networks and gain invaluable confidence — and Margie’s Hope, an LGBTQ+ organization that assists trans and non-binary people in need of emotional and material support.
For Jones, who is both a founder a current emeritus member of the Gay Community Endowment Fund’s advisory board, watching the fund’s growth has been a dream come true — and a point of personal pride.
“Even bigger cities don’t have an [LGBTQ+] endowment fund like this,” Jones says. “We really have made a difference.”
‘It’s the best gift you can give’
This year, the tour’s featured homes are located just a short drive away in Bath Township, Fairlawn Heights and West Akron — where a two-story colonial with “eclectic charm and whimsical details,” is sure to impress.
A $35 ticket includes access to five of Akron’s “finest historic and contemporary homes,” each unique in size, age, architecture and decor. A sixth home, acquired exclusively for sponsors, will host a private event after the tour concludes.
This year, sponsors will spend the evening in a 14,000-square-foot, 1927 neoclassical French chateau. The mansion’s marble fireplaces and “ornamental wrought iron grand staircase,” lend a special holiday elegance to the event, which Jones says has helped draw many major donors over the years.
Though corporate and individual sponsors may contribute $500 or more to the fund, the Sugar Plum Tour itself is designed with affordability and accessibility in mind.
The tour is intended for everyone, Jones says — a warm and welcoming environment where friends and family can relax, connect and enjoy the holiday atmosphere.
“Really, it’s the best gift you can give someone you care about,” Jones says. “Getting to spend the day with someone and enjoy the experience together.”
‘It’s all about the magic’
Because the tour is self-guided, Jones says the unexpected joy of bumping into old friends along the route is also an important part of the Sugar Plum experience — and one that taps into a special element of the holiday spirit.
“The older you get, you start searching for the meaning of the season,” Jones says. “What is it? How do you catch it again?”
In the end, Jones says it has to do with centering the people, interactions and relationships that enrich our lives year-round. The tour — lovingly designed and executed — provides a splendid and joyful space to do just that.
Even this year’s virtual option — which will be professionally filmed and accessible to guests from the privacy of their own homes — was created in hopes that families and friends could still gather to enjoy the holiday grandeur while maintaining COVID-19 precautions.
In the coming years, the event Jones helped bring to life in 2001 is poised to flourish and adapt with the help of an ever-growing supportive community.
“It [benefits]a cause we could really put our hearts and minds into,” Jones says. “And it really is the best way to find the warmth and spirit of the season.”
“It’s all about the holiday magic,” he adds. “And the Sugar Plum Tour is just one way to capture it.” 🔥
Here’ s a sneak peak at the 2021 Sugar Plum Tour (Photos by Star Films LLC):
This story was made possible through the support of the Akron Community Foundation.
- To purchase tickets for the live and virtual Sugar Plum Tour, or to find more information, please visit www.sugarplumtour.org. Some-day tickets may be purchased or picked up at Angels Falls Coffee Company, 792 W Market St, Akron OH 44303 on Sunday, Dec. 5 from 11am – 2:30pm. Use “Plexus2021” for a $5 discount.
- Click here to learn more about pre-purchased ticket pick-up times and locations.