A brief brush with homelessness was enough for Valencia Gunder to know it wasn’t the life for her. After struggling through the financial recession of the mid 2000s, in 2009 she hit bottom and wound up living from place to place for three weeks.
That bit of reality made a huge impression on Gunder. Now she helps homeless people in Miami and Atlanta, making sure they have food, clothing, hygiene products and a shave at least once a month.
“Grandma always made sure we had a solid foundation,” said Gunder, who grew up in Liberty City and lived in Tallahassee for a few years after graduating from Florida A&M University.
Gunder is the founder of Make the Homeless Smile, a nonprofit group that is making a statement in Miami. Since 2014, she has served an average of 225 people per feeding in two cities. That equates to about 15,000 meals, she said. At least once a month, every third Sunday, she and her family and friends go to a familiar corner where Overtown intersects with downtown Miami.
Gunder, a community organizer with the activist group New Florida Majority, got the idea one day while watching a video on Facebook of guys who would jump out of cars and help a homeless person. That was three years ago. She put the idea out to followers on social media, and headed to a spot near Camillus House. “I went out with a few sandwiches, water and fruit. About 25 volunteers showed up and we served 75 people,” she said. “I was only going to do it one time. After that, everyone said we want to do it again.”
Three years later, Gunder hasn’t missed a session. Her family and friends also help. “At first it was a few of my cousins and siblings,” she said. “My aunts thought I was crazy for doing it. But after a while one of them started assisting by buying things, or giving clothes and telling people about me. “
Her father also helped by buying tables and coolers, and also by providing the funds for the 501c3 nonprofit designation. Two years ago, FAMU classmates in Atlanta who were aware of Gunder’s work, encouraged her to expand there, which she did.
Now, her extended family of uncles and cousins all pitch in. Make the Homeless Smile offers hair cuts, grooming and personal hygiene products as well as food and beverages. Gunder said friends and family help with some expenses and she gets in-kind help from organizations such as the Eastern Stars and Masons. But she still bears a lot of the expenses. She said the feedings cost about $400 to $500 each. Once a month, at 10 a.m., the group comes to Northeast First Street and Sixth Avenue in Miami. They often are greeted by a line of men and women who know the rules. No shoving, no cutting the line. Service is provided first come, first served. And everyone must smile.
“They know our rules. They have to pay for the food with a smile,” Gunder said. “We’re making sure they’re gonna have a good day. Sometimes we have speakers out there. They get to dance and socialize. You may come sad but you’re going to leave happy.”