Mariah Smith sat attentively behind a desk in a small office building off Cleveland Place in Virginia Beach. The office was sparsely decorated with just a few pictures, ornaments and minimal furniture. She walked to a side door and opened it into a larger, garage-like space. It was as full as Smith’s office was empty.
The room was stuffed with bags of clothing, blankets and accessories. All were donated to Smith’s organization, Blankets for the Homeless.
Smith couldn’t stop smiling as she talked about her new 800 square-foot space for what she’s trying to do. Before this, Smith and her mother, Moira Askew, ran Blankets for the Homeless out of their home. People would drop bags at their doorstep at all hours. Donations were stored in Askew and Smith’s house or a storage unit.
Smith would sometimes spend six hours in their driveway at home sorting items.
“Now with more people being able to get involved it’ll just make things so much easier and more efficient,” Smith said.
The Runnymede Corporation donated the office space earlier this month soon after its president, Matt Fine, a longtime supporter of Blankets for the Homeless, learned about the need, Smith said.
Smith started the nonprofit in October 2011 when she was 17, inspired by her own circumstances. She was born on Christmas Eve and abandoned on the street, she said. Askew adopted her two years later.
“I think that’s played a huge role in motivating me in wanting to help so many people,” she said. “When I was born I was homeless, too, so essentially it’s a continuous inspiration for me to want to help those in need.”
The initiative has since collected more than 110,000 blankets to distribute, as well as clothing, gloves, scarves, socks, shoes and toys.
Blankets for the Homeless began its efforts in Virginia Beach but spread to Chesapeake, Norfolk, Suffolk, Portsmouth, Hampton and Williamsburg. Smith, her mom and a few volunteers deliver the items to the homeless four to five days each week.
“We pack the van to the very top and we go home making sure that it’s empty,” Smith said.
Smith said that while they will partner with shelters, they try to reach the people who aren’t able to get in. Most of the donations go to those who are living on the streets or living out of their cars.
Smith said she’s learned soon after they started helping the homeless that they needed much more than just blankets.
“They need everything that we take for granted,” she said.
She recalled the time she saw a man who was sleeping and covered in ants. It made her realize how badly bug spray is needed in the summer.
Smith also organizes special events and drives, such as their annual Christmas stocking event. People from the area make or buy stockings for men, women and children and fill them with presents. The children receive toys and coloring books, while adults get more practical gifts, such as deodorant and gloves. They distributed about 800 stockings last year; Smith said they were on track to have that many this year as well.
Now all that work has a new address: 352 Cleveland Place. Smith and Askew plan to set up a volunteer schedule in January so they can get more help. Until now they had often relied on church groups and schools to host Blankets for the Homeless projects because there was no room in Smith and Askew’s home to fit many volunteers.
Smith runs the nonprofit while being a full-time student at Regent University. Her Blankets for the Homeless duties include answering emails, setting up drop-off times, coordinating volunteers, speaking at churches, schools and businesses, and overseeing the organization and distributing donations.
Smith said she doesn’t mind the work. Her mission began when she encountered a homeless man in October 2011.
“The night that I saw the homeless man at Sonic, we just happened to have a blanket in the back of our van, and when I got out and gave him that blanket and the food we had ordered, it really did change my perception, and it touched my heart that this was reality,” Smith said.