CHARLOTTE — When the goal is to end homelessness, the first step is making your neighbors feel at home.
So for Roof Above director of food services Sandra Smith, hers is often the first friendly face people see and the first step toward making those she serves welcomed, nourished, and ready to take the next steps toward housing.
And because of the work she's doing to nourish and welcome everyone in our community on their path to housing, Smith has been named the Panthers' 2023 Inspire Change Changemaker Award recipient. Smith will be recognized at the Panthers' Inspire Change game on Sunday, Dec. 17, for going above and beyond in the pursuit of social justice.
In addition to receiving special recognition at the Inspire Change game, Roof Above will receive a $10,000 donation from the NFL Foundation in Smith's name. Roof Above is a comprehensive homeless service provider serving 1,200 people per day through street outreach, day services, emergency shelter and permanent supportive housing. (For more information on the 2023 Changemaker Award recipients, visit NFL.com/causes/inspire-change/changemakers.)
"She has been welcoming people at our door for more than a decade, knowing people's names and providing a sense of hospitality," Roof Above CEO Liz Clasen-Kelly said. "I think of her as one of the keepers of the heart of this organization. Roof Above's mission is to unite the community to end homelessness one life at a time.
"And we do that by meeting people's basic needs, meeting people where they are, and then walking with them and creating housing solutions. Sandra is at the very beginning of that equation. Sandra is helping meet the most basic need of hunger. But more than that, she's also doing it in a way that increases relationship."
Once they're in the door, fed, warm, and safe, the organization can more easily work toward finding housing solutions. More than 400 were housed in the last year alone, all of whom have tasted her gift not just for cooking but for connecting in a way that doesn't come from a recipe.
She oversees serving meals 365 days a year, but the Tuesdays and Fridays when she's in the kitchen making hot lunches always draw the biggest crowds.
"What she's doing is she's spreading joy, she's spreading love," said Dr. Michella Palmer, Roof Above's director of resources. "Her ability to cook well is a skill, but it's her personality, her ability to connect with neighbors.
"When you ask her about a recipe, she's like, oh, I don't know anything about a recipe. I put a little bit of this, and I put a little bit of that. But you can tell that it's made with love."
Smith is from and of the community she serves, growing up in Charlotte and joining Roof Above in 1994 after a lifetime in the city. She was born here, and raised here. So she connects with the people she serves in a personal way, calling them by name, often recognizing a former neighbor or classmate, and making a connection that makes every person who walks through her doors — and her community — stronger.
"My mission is to make sure you get some food in that belly," Smith said with a smile. "That's my mission. This group means a lot to a lot of people. It means a lot to me.
"I've been here over 30 years, and I've never been homeless but I've had some low times in my life. And just coming to this place when I got this job, it changed my life."
And in turn, she's changed many others, and made our city a healthier place, one plate at a time.