Days before Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017, Valencia Gunder was already preparing.
After the storm affected more than 6 million people, the Miami native wasted no time gathering volunteers who then made meals for up to 600 people a day in Liberty City, Little Haiti, Overtown, Allapattah, Florida City, Perrine and West Grove.
Indeed, in the spirit of selflessly helping others, Gunder has spearheaded many operations across Florida and the world since The Miami Times profiled her in 2017 as someone who personified Martin Luther King’s dream.
Three years before that story was published she founded The Smile Trust, originally named Make the Homeless Smile. It began by feeding 75 people and has sprouted various groups of volunteers helping the unsheltered in Miami and Atlanta, serving more than 400,000 meals since it was established and providing clothes, haircuts, showers and toiletries to the impoverished.
“We still show up,” Gunder said. “We show up in authenticity to speak on behalf of our community.”
She expanded her work with disadvantaged residents through the Community Emergency Operation Center, which helped more than 23,000 people through the efforts of 350 volunteers in its first mission, and since then has hosted community meetings in Liberty City and Little Haiti aimed at propelling its residents forward.
Through all of her work, Gunder has taken King’s words with her.
“We are still trying to carry the dream forward,” she said.
In 2019 Gunder and community leaders such as Florida Rep. Shevrin Jones turned their attention to the damage caused by 2019’s Hurricane Dorian. Donations were collected for 15 days with the help of more than 750 volunteers. Aid materials were packed onto two cargo planes and sent to the Bahamas.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020. People were losing their jobs and didn’t know how they were going to get by. The Smile Trust again rushed into action.
“That’s what Smile Trust has been doing,” said Gunder. “We’ve been doing that for a long time, so we just continue to do more of it.”
The organization, she says, “shows up in the healthiest ways for [its] communities.”
In 2021, after winter storms pummeled the South, the Smile Trust worked with various organizations to provide water, food, temporary housing and medical supplies to 50,000-plus families. Gunder then helped engineer a report on the assistance intervention gap between minority neighborhoods and others.
“I have been writing data research and policy on a national level for the last two years in partnership with a lot of great organizations and leaders,” she said.
In February 2022, The Smile Trust began an agricultural program in collaboration with the Green Haven Project, named the Smile Haven Community Garden. Around 100 volunteers attended the first event, preparing the land and planting fruits and vegetables to be given to those who need them later.
In August of last year The Smile Trust opened The Freedom Lab, which will also be home to The Black Collective and other groups.
“We tried to create a space where community organizations can do deliberation practices, host meetings, and have a safe place for their membership and staff,” said Gunder.
This past November, she attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Egypt. As the co-founder of The Black Hive, a national Black environmental justice coalition, she spoke on the importance of protecting Black communities during the climate crisis.
“I feel like my politics and my imagination have shifted in a good way,” Gunder said. “It’s broader, bigger and brings more hope.”
Sofia Zuniga Miami Times Contributor | This profile is a collaboration between The Miami Times and the Lee Caplin School of Journalism & Media at Florida International University.