Hundreds of people have braved the cold weather to sleep outside in solidarity with the homeless during the annual Spectrum Sleep Out event. But only one has done so every year since its conception: Essex resident Tawnya Safer.

Safer said she came across the Spectrum website while researching ways to volunteer in the community. She signed up for the first event without reading too much into it.

“I understood that Spectrum helped youth and young adults who face challenges that they should never have to face and certainly shouldn’t have to face alone,” she explained in an email. “That’s all I really needed to know.”

Essex resident Mark Redmond, executive director of Spectrum Services, recalled that first sleep out, where he first met Safer. About 40 people signed up, and the temperature dipped well below freezing. Everyone in the group — most were business leaders from the area — went around and introduced themselves.

When it was Safer’s turn, she admitted she made a mistake. She wasn’t a bank president or a lawyer with some important firm.

“I’m a mom, and I’m not really a leader,” she said, according to Redmond. “I don’t think I belong here.”

But one of the participants walked over, put his hands on her shoulder and said: “That’s not true. You do belong here. You’re out with us, and you’re going to sleep in the cold and the snow. You’re a leader.”

“I will never forget that,” Redmond said. “It made such an impression on me.”

Seven years later, Safer said the sleep out has remained a life-changing experience. She said the events have helped her develop more compassion, and notes that while sleeping out for one night a year is just “one small act of kindness,” it can make a difference. It’s also helped her develop more compassion for people who must endure circumstances “no one ever should.”

“Everyone has a story,” she said. “I only had to endure one night out on the lawn to know that.”

Redmond started the sleep out in 2012 after, like so many non-profits, his organization began seeing its grant money dissipate over time. Knowing he needed to find a way to raise money from private sources, he drew on an idea from a shelter he used to volunteer at in New York City 37 years ago.

Since 2012, he estimated Safer has helped raise thousands. He commended her for being “unbelievably committed” and said he “admire[s] the heck out of her.”

“She’s just a humble, caring person,” Redmond said. “She personifies the best of Essex and the best of Vermont. This kind of quiet, humble service to help those in need.”

Safer, meanwhile, deflects praise toward Spectrum, which she said offers the community hope each day. She also offered a bit of advice for anyone looking to make a difference.

“If you want to have more impact, give more heart in all you do,” she said. “Compassion goes a long way.”