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Quarantales #3: Fun Interview with Jamila Smith at Carpenter’s Shelter

"The Alexandria community has been incredible. We haven’t missed a meal yet."

Jamila Smith accepts in-kind donations for Carpenter’s Shelter families from Brigade of Mercy. (Photo courtesy of Carpenter’s Shelter)

Stories from Alexandrians that will make you smile. We hope.

Jamila Smith is the volunteer coordinator of Carpenter’s Shelter, Alexandria’s largest homeless shelter. They support the homeless in achieving sustainable independence through shelter, guidance, education, and advocacy.

Let’s play “Two Truths and a Lie.”

OK, here you go:

I have swum with stingrays.

I have been stung by a jellyfish.

I love going through haunted houses.

How long have you been the volunteer coordinator?

Almost a year and a half. Before that I was an Area Manager at a bank.

Whaaa? Explain, please!

I was a banking executive for over 20 years, first in Buffalo, New York and then in Raleigh [North Carolina]. It was all very sale-focused. With each promotion came more responsibility and also more stress. Then a family event made me take time away from work and rethink things, and when the bank eliminated positions I took a severance package. I had an affinity for the DMV area from living here years ago, so I moved back.

I started volunteering at the Carpenter’s Shelter front desk and the volunteer coordinator was about to leave. She suggested that I apply for her position. Utilizing my acquired skillset from my banking career to help others was very appealing to me. I applied and got the job.

Do you like your job?

It’s been one of the most amazing experiences of my life! I see the best of human nature and work with people who are like-minded. I help make a change in people’s lives and in the community.

Jamila and Carpenter’s Shelter therapist Finnie Caldwell serve a donated lunch to residents. (Photo courtesy of Carpenter’s Shelter)

How has your job changed since COVID-19?

Normally I was responsible for coordinating about 1,000 volunteers for various roles but we’ve suspended in-shelter volunteer engagement since mid-March. Now staff works 12-hours shifts and I coordinate our residents’ meals and in-kind donations. There’s no oven or stove at our Landmark Mall site so we rely on volunteers to prepare and serve two meals a day for about 30 single males there. We also serve two meals a day at our temporary site at the Charles Houston Recreation Center for about 20 of our chronically homeless in addition to providing grocery store gift cards to families and single women we are housing at a hotel. They have nice kitchenettes and are able to cook their own meals.

How do you get those meals?

The Alexandria community has been incredible. We haven’t missed a meal yet. We get them from wonderful organizations like Alexandria Restaurant Partners, Power of 10 Initiative, faith communities like Alfred Street Baptist Church, St. Rita’s Catholic Church, Westminster Presbyterian, businesses like Motley Fool, Grant Thornton, The Russell Group, and quite a few individual donors. Some of them have even set up Go Fund Me pages for us. We’ve gotten a lot of catered meals donated. In the midst of all of this anxiety it’s really nice for residents to not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. They look forward to it. And the meals are always amazing!

What about dessert?

Family-based groups like our Circle of H.O.P.E and Brownie troops have really stepped up. We usually recommend baked goods when they contact us looking for ways to help. We all love dessert, right?

Can staff eat leftovers?

Yes, normally they bring enough food so the staff can eat too!

So how do you relieve your stress?

Baking! I have probably  gained 10 pounds. I love to try new recipes and bring it in to my co-workers. My most recent creation was Do Si Dang peanut butter cup brownies. I made brownies with chopped peanut butter cups folded in, frosted with edible peanut butter cookie dough and topped with a crumble made of crushed Do-Si Do cookies blended with butter and toasted. I’ve also made chocolate orange cake, and sticky buns with raisins and apples. I love watching baking shows and experimenting with new recipes. My next big purchase will be to get an ice cream maker.

7-Up close and personal – Jamila bakes 7-Up cake and other goodies to destress.

What do you look forward to each day?

I’m reading “Lovecraft Country” by Matt Ruff. It’s being adapted into an HBO show directed by Jordan Peele. It’s a racialized take on H. P. Lovecraft stories. He wrote supernatural horror fiction with racist undertones. This book flips that on its head and tells a scary story through black people’s experiences with racism. And working at shelter helps reduces my anxiety. I see such kindness. I always considered myself lucky and blessed to be at the Carpenter’s Shelter.

How can people help you?

Advocate for the Carpenter’s Shelter. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Share our posts to create awareness. They can donate and sign up for our updates. Support our Amazon Wish List. We are always in need of meal provider, if interested they can contact me at [email protected].

Anything else?

I’m so grateful to work for an organization that works so hard to help the most vulnerable, and for the huge heart and generous spirit of this community. This has been tough for me, tough for the shelter, and tough for everyone out there, but it gives me hope to see people helping.

What was Jamila’s two truths? She’s never been stung by a jellyfish.

CLICK HERE for more in the Quarantales Series








Jane Collins

Jane Hess Collins is a communications consultant and coach, and holds a masters’ degree in Public Relations & Corporate Communications from Georgetown University. She is the founder and executive director of Heard, an Alexandria-based nonprofit that teaches life skills disguised as art to underserved populations. She retired from the United States Air Force in 2009.

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