December 13, 2019

Wayne State staffer builds family tradition around giving Detroiters a home-cooked meal for the holidays

Lavinia Lamar-Smith and her husband, John, believe in the comforting power of a home-cooked meal, but for the last eight Christmases, their holiday meal has consisted of Cheerios or Chinese takeout. After preparing and distributing dinners to hundreds of Detroiters every year, the Smiths have found themselves — and their kitchen cupboards — exhausted. They wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Smith Family Christmas brings together family and friends to provide a warm meal to Detroiters in need.

Since the first “Smith Family Christmas” in 2011, the couple has provided meals to more than 2,000 homeless Detroiters and plan to continue the tradition this holiday season.

The tradition began when Lamar-Smith — who is associate director of the Wayne State University Cashier’s Office — decided she wanted to help feed the homeless, but found herself on a waitlist to volunteer with local organizations like Gleaners, Meals on Wheels and Capuchin Soup Kitchen.

“I guess it was a good thing that there were so many people who wanted to help,” she said. “But John and I didn’t want to wait. We wanted to help right then, so we got into the kitchen and got to work.”

Armed with carryout boxes and a home-cooked spread consisting of ribs, chicken, greens, corn, string beans, dinner rolls, and dessert, the couple will load up their truck and drive downtown to distribute hot meals, as well as donated hats, gloves, scarves, coats and personal hygiene products.

Lavinia Lamar-Smith has made providing community meals in Detroit a family tradition. 

In their first year, they distributed 50 meals along Woodward, Second and Third avenues and by the Rosa Parks Transit Center. “The food went fast, and it just hit me so hard when we ran out,” Lamar-Smith said. “I knew we had to do this every year, and we had to do more.”

And so, they did more — with the growing support of their friends and family, the Smiths have gradually increased the number of meals they prepare each year and expect to distribute 600 meals this December. In recent years, they have outgrown their home kitchen and now use the kitchen at The Matrix Center on 6 Mile and Gratiot to package their meals and as their volunteer headquarters.

Lamar-Smith’s husband, John, a former caterer now working at a security firm, is passionate about cooking.

“He takes so much pride in this food — I have to remind him that he can’t feed the whole world, even though we’d like to,” Lamar-Smith said. “We want this meal to really be special because it’s about more than food. We’re giving them dinner, sure, but we’re also reminding them that people care.” 

The Smith family has organized picnics in Detroit for the last two summers, feeding more than 350 people in the commuity. 

Recognizing that there’s hunger year-round, the Smiths recently expanded their efforts. Along with family and friends, they hosted their first summer meal in July 2018 — a community fish fry just outside the Masonic Temple. More than 100 attended the event, and the Smiths expanded their efforts to provide meals to more than 250 people at similar events in summer 2019.

“We’re always overwhelmed by the number of people who reach out and want to help us,” Lamar-Smith said. “Once you see the difference simply sharing a meal and a smile makes in someone’s life, you can’t help but want to volunteer.”

If you would like to help, contact Lavinia Lamar-Smith at  to learn more about donation and volunteer needs.