When life drips with hardship like hot coffee from a cracked mug and when it seems like helping someone else would only add pressurized steam to what is already about to break, the Smiths, who have suffered homelessness off-and-on for five years in the 80s, seem rather springy, stretchy and super resilient.
Talk to either one of the couple, married 36 years, and it becomes obvious that hardships have made them both wiser and more equipped than ever to help someone else in need.
Independent Marriage and Family Therapist John J. Smith and his wife Jeanette Smith-Perrone, who is a professor and technology evangelist at Tacoma Community College (TCC), have taken the education they learned from the school of hard knocks to birth a non-profit business that they named Child of Fortune.
Born in January of this year, Child of Fortune (childoffortune.org) helps at-risk college students who are on the verge of dropping out of school due to unmet survival needs. Child of Fortune offers help and support for staying in college, regardless of past issues or current poverty.
"When John and I were homeless," Jeanette said, "we didn't have any guidance so we stayed homeless a lot longer than the people we give counsel to today.”
“Now, we create friendships and relationships with community resources and charities so when a student goes down to apply for assistance, they go down on our referral. They're not cold-calling," John said. "We also help connect them to other student resources that are paid for by outside sources within Pierce County."
According to Jeannette, TCC has many resources to help students stay in school. However, a big gap exists in emergency housing and homeless college students keenly feel it. If a student becomes homeless during a quarter, the chances of making good grades and staying in school is very unlikely, Jeannette said.
Child of Fortune, with the help of the Smiths and other community members, is now seeking community support for a pilot project to create a new emergency housing facility that will help at-risk students stay in school.
"We need about 2,000 square feet of physical space," Jeanette said. "We are looking for office or retail space within two miles of TCC that could be used for creating a 20-bed facility. There will be check in at evening and exit time in the morning, so unlike traditional shelters, people are not going to be loitering around the premises when they're not supposed to be there. There will also be no drop-in cases looking for a bed since this program will require pre-registration and entrance counseling.”
“This pilot location will target men, since they are statistically less likely to be able to obtain emergency housing,” Jeannette said. The onsite services will include what is necessary to succeed in college today including wifi, study space, and meals."
According to a study conducted and published this year by the University of Wisconsin, Wisconsin HOPE Lab and the Association of Community College Trustees, where researchers surveyed more than 33,000 students in 24 states and at 70 two-year institutions, an estimated one-third of community college students go hungry in America and 14 percent of them are homeless. In that same report, “Hungry and Homeless in College,” half of all community college students are housing insecure, meaning that they lack having a consistent place to sleep and are on the verge of or are residing in a shelter, automobile or abandoned building.
Jeanette says there's a six-week window into homelessness where students drop out of college completely, and that negatively impacts the students’ ability to thrive in the future. Every community college graduate directly improves the financial outlook for their families and our community. Potentially losing 14 percent to situational homelessness while they are trying to improve their future is unconscionable. That's why we really need that 20-bed facility close to the target community college.
Beyond giving advice, the Smiths practice every money-managing technique that they teach to the students because they learned such skills first-hand from surviving bad money management practices in their past.
Jeanette said, “Life can deal you a challenging hand but you must be resilient, creative, and opportunistic. The future gets better because we make it that way. The most important assets we share are our experiences and wisdom.”
After John’s honorable discharge from the military in the early 8os, the couple could not find stable work with a livable wage. So they and their infant son went from couch-surfing with friends and family to living out of a car, to living in a room-share, and they worked seasonal jobs house-sitting and hand-washing semi trucks to get by.
They repeatedly learned that none of those sporadic jobs nor John's veteran status from the Air Force could sustain them for long. That’s when Jeanette decided to go to Tacoma Community College to earn credentials that would help provide a better future.
Yet going to school made times even harder for the couple since she worked while attending school. With determination, Jeanette earned excellent grades and completed an accelerated Computer Repair Tech program at TCC. Upon graduating, she managed to get a contract through General Electric and began working with Boeing right away.
John decided to follow his bliss and become a marriage and family therapist. He was told in high school that he was not college material but Jeanette told him that we need people like him to be marriage and family therapists. His road to success was not easy from Tacoma Community College, University of Washington Tacoma, and Capella University but Jeannette insists that persistency is more important than natural ability.
John uses each life lesson to counsel struggling community college students about persistency, resiliency, money management and the use of other resources to make ends meet. It's also an experience that keeps the couple spending much more wisely today.
As a marriage and family therapist, John’s counseling practice called Center of Focus LLC is an important resource for Child of Fortune. He counsels students for a small stipend, which is paid for by donations made to Child of Fortune. That stipend is the only cost charged for John's counseling services with at-risk students, regardless of how long a counseling session with the therapist might last. That even includes students with greater needs who John says he might see a couple or three times per week.
"I take them into therapy to help them figure out how they got to where they are today," John said. "More than likely it didn't just start with an argument with a roommate or family member. Other problems led up to that point and created the experiences they are having now. The counseling and resources that Child of Fortune provides help the student get into housing and we also help them become more resilient."
According to Jeannette, Child of Fortune does not offer any financial support directly to students but when they leave the program they have the knowledge to better utilize the resources that are available to them so they can avoid getting into this vulnerable state of living again.
While TCC is the pilot college for starting Child of Fortune, the Smiths say they hope to expand in the not-too-distant future to include other colleges.
"The end goal is just to get the kids off the street," Jeanette said. "Reeducation. Mentoring. Guiding. If someone is on the street, if they're homeless and don't know how to fix it, it's going to take those three things to get them back on their feet. Attending community college is a brave and immense effort to change the trajectory of your life. We should do all in our power to help the student succeed."