AKRON: Cuyahoga Falls developer Joel Testa asked family and friends for a gift on his 42nd birthday two weeks ago. He sent out a Facebook message requesting help to feed and clothe Akron’s homeless population during the holidays.

Testa and his wife, Mary, would shoulder most of the expense personally, yet on such short notice, pulling it together was a daunting task.

Soon, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins plus dozens of friends and Testa Co. employees stepped up to help. His daughter’s scout troop made scarves to donate to the project, and Acme Fresh Market donated gift cards to help defray the estimated $2,000 price tag.

Testa said he is passionate about changing the perception people have of the area’s homeless.

“Generally, people are afraid of the homeless,” said Testa. “The homeless are not lepers. Homelessness can happen to anyone.”

But Testa didn’t stop there. He wanted to give something special to as many of Akron’s homeless population as possible. He and his business partners at d.b.a., the restaurant he owns with Dante Boccuzzi and Morgan Yagi on the ground floor of Northside Lofts, prepared dinner for 50 homeless guests at the restaurant.

“Some of these people may never experience fine dining at a world-renowned restaurant,” Testa said.

Community Support Services (CSS) estimates there are 800 people living in Akron, bouncing from shelter to shelter each night or couch surfing in the homes of friends and relatives, Testa said. The nonprofit agency serves the mentally ill population in Summit County

“We currently have 355 more people than we have bed space for in the shelters,” he said.

Most of the men and women who were treated to the meal served on fine dinnerware and crystal sleep in makeshift tents set up in the woods or on the cold concrete outside a public building.

Chris Matthews, 28, has been living “here and there” on the streets for two years. He moved to a parking deck about a week ago, he said.

Matthews came to Akron to be near his brother, who has since moved away. His dream is to find a job and move to warmer weather in Baton Rouge, La.

Each day, he reports to the library and scours the Internet to find a job to pay for the bus fare.

Matthews said he appreciated what the group of people did for him and his homeless friends.

“They handed me a ticket and said it was for a four-star restaurant. I didn’t even know there was one in Akron,” he said.

Mark Courtney, 56, who sat near Matthews at a large table with family-style seating, said he has been homeless for about six years. He lives in a tent in the woods with his best friend, a large mastiff named Bear. They depend on a fire pit for cooking and heat.

While he appreciates a good meal, he said he never accepts well-meaning offers of dog food for Bear.

“I don’t need that much food, but I cook him a chicken every day,” he said.

Chef Torsten Schulz planned a four-course menu Sunday that included spinach quiche salad, potato leek soup, braised beef short ribs and a chocolate mousse desert. Diners were offered seconds and handed takeout bags with leftovers as they departed.

Testa estimated the dinner for 50 would run about $1,000 to be absorbed by the restaurant.

People need to feel they deserve to walk into a fine restaurant and be served, said Keith Stahl, director of residential services at CSS.

It is the first step in breaking the grip of homelessness, he said.

“A lot of the guys lose hope that life can get better for them,” Stahl said. “It’s such a wonderful thing for them to do.”

Earlier in the day on Sunday morning, more than 40 people gathered in the parking deck at Northside on Furnace Street to fill 500 sack lunches with peanut butter and jelly or meat and cheese sandwiches, granola bars, apples, pudding and juice boxes. Collected clothing was sorted and bagged, and homemade Christmas cookies were packed into the sacks and made ready for CSS volunteers to deliver.

Many of them stuck around to help serve the meal.

The city of Akron provided free trolley service to shuttle diners to the restaurant, and volunteers fanned out to offer rides to others who couldn’t make it to the pickup points.

Once word gets out, people will begin vying for a chance to participate, Stahl predicted.

“They will pay attention to it next time,” he said.

Kathy Antoniotti can be reached at 330-996-3565 or kantoniotti@thebeaconjournal.com.