When asked to serve as the 2014 Christmas Mother, Maya Smart initially demurred, saying the timing wasn’t right. In fact, it was long overdue.
The selection of Smart, thirty-four, propelled the 80-year-old program that raises money for needy families into the twenty-first century. The youngest and first black Christmas Mother harnessed her social media acumen, extensive community contacts, and visionary signature style to broaden the charitable program’s appeal to a wider constituency, including black supporters and millennials.
Smart, the wife of former VCU men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart, was the consensus of a selection board concerned about reaching a diverse and younger generation of supporters, said Tom Silvestri, president and publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which runs the program.
“Maya rose to the top for many reasons and she was comfortable in a public role of raising money – a key requirement –
for a great cause. At first, Maya said her schedule was jammed and it was more realistic to do it in 2015. But upon further lobbying, she cleared time to join us. It was a great call, given the Smarts are now residents of Texas,” Silvestri said.
In case you hadn’t heard, this spring, Shaka Smart accepted the head coaching job at the University of Texas, which means the family has relocated.
Of the many community endeavors Maya Smart worked on during the six years she called Richmond home, she said raising more than $325,000 as Christmas Mother was her crowning achievement. “Serving as Christmas Mother was a wonderful opportunity,” she said during a phone interview from Austin, her family’s new home. “Part of the impact is that it’s symbolic. It means a lot to people when they see my picture in the newspaper,” said Smart, a former journalist.
Smart does not know the percentage of first-time donors last year, but one RTD editor mentioned that “there were so many new names and groups and book clubs [donating to the program], which may have been related to me giving out books,” Smart said. “There was an uptick in different demographics of new people. A lot of people who sent in checks said, ‘This was my first time donating’ or ‘I was inspired to give because of Maya.’”
“Maya has a style and personality that is easygoing and approachable,” says Reggie Gordon, CEO of the Eastern Virginia region of the American Red Cross, one of the groups that benefitted from the fundraising efforts. “As a result, I believe the community felt compelled to join her for the Christmas Mother campaign. We wanted her to succeed.”
Smart included the entire community in the campaign and reenergized the platform of Christmas Mother in the process, said Gigi Amateau, chief impact officer of the United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg. “RVA embraced Maya because she embraced RVA. I think we fell in love with her energy, her bold commitment to children, and her beauty, inside and out.” Smart used her Christmas Mother position and other philanthropic ventures “to also raise awareness about literacy and the importance of early reading. The fact that she personally donated more than a thousand books to kids just blows me away,” Amateau said.
Smart’s leadership not only meant more families would get assistance, it also galvanized area Christmas Mothers from Richmond’s surrounding counties to find ways to reach more families.
“Maya’s impact has inspired me to promote the 2015 program to a wider audience,” said Beverly Cocke, the 2015 Henrico Christmas Mother and the Brookland District’s representative on the Henrico County School Board. “Our program will be using social media more vigorously to get the word out on how Henricoans can help their neighbors in need. We have already increased our following on Facebook twofold,” said Cocke, a volunteer with the program for nine years.
Started seventy-three years ago, the Henrico initiative provides food, new clothes, toys, books, and other gift items to Henrico families with children, seniors age sixty-five and older, and disabled adults during the holiday season. Unlike Richmond’s program, Henrico’s Christmas Mother is selected based on her volunteer service to the program.
“Growing up in the county, I remember as a student bringing in cans of food for our school’s food drive. Knowing that we continue to rely on Henrico County Public Schools to donate the bulk of our food needs demonstrates this tradition while teaching our children the importance of giving rather than receiving,” said Cocke.
Last year’s Henrico Christmas Mother program raised more than $171,000 in cash donations, serving 1,617 Henrico families and 4,737 individuals. “Our goal for cash contributions this year is $195,000. This will help us provide new toys, books, clothing, and pantry staple meals to roughly five thousand individuals this Christmas season,” said Cocke.
Cocke encourages everyone, and Henrico residents in particular, to go to henricochristmasmother.org now to find out how to spread the Christmas spirit the whole year through. The work of some Christmas Mothers, including Cocke, has already begun. She was featured in the Sandston Memorial Day parade.
The Henrico County program starts its first donor push in July by sending solicitation letters to past donors and friends, so summer is a good time for area residents to begin thinking about ways to help others later in the year, she said.
Lorraine Buck, the coordinator for the Chesterfield-Colonial Heights Christmas Mother program, agrees it is never too early to consider how to help other residents. Raising awareness throughout the year greatly benefits the program, which was established in 1972 by Lucy Corr, then superintendent of the Chesterfield County Welfare Department.
“I can’t imagine what it would be like for these parents not to be able to give their children some presents under the tree,” said Buck, who has volunteered with the program for fourteen years.
“It gives you such a good feeling just to see the recipients come in and get their presents. There are a lot of tears and a lot of hugs. On the other side, I so enjoy the sponsors. They are wonderful. It’s amazing what they do,” she said, adding last year more than five hundred businesses served as sponsors.
The program raised $205,000 in cash last year and helped 1,770 families and a total of 5,424 individuals, Buck said. Assistance included gift cards for 103 people at nursing homes and 79 foster children. The bulk of the families, 967, were sponsored by businesses. Families that apply to be a sponsored family must meet Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program eligibility.
When Smart agreed to serve as the Richmond Christmas Mother, the program’s goal was $275,000. “I wanted to at least improve from that. I wanted to raise as much a possible. I didn’t know what was possible. I did aim high,” Smart said with a chuckle. She exceeded her goal.
A literacy advocate for children, Smart did not know much about the Christmas giving program when she was tapped to lead it. “I wasn’t that familiar with the program because I don’t consider myself to be part of the core demographic that has supported it in the past. It was traditionally supported by older, long-time Richmonders. As a young person who moved here in 2009, “I did not have a long history. It just wasn’t on my mind,” Smart said.
“I did not fully understand what I was getting into, but I did understand it was a great opportunity to promote the causes that I care about. So from the beginning, I thought, I’ll raise the money for the funds and they will disperse it how they deem appropriate…but while I do it I’ll also use the newspaper, radio, and TV coverage to promote the other things that I had already been working on and that I was passionate about personally. So I tried to take what had been traditionally done and put my own spin on it.”
She noted how Kathie Markel, the 2013 Christmas Mother, invited children to join her on a trolley during the Christmas parade.
“So I put my own spin on that idea and created the trolley with The Snowy Day literary theme to specifically try and send a message about diversity in literature,” Smart said. She added that it’s important to help children get excited about reading and education. Reading stories that reflect the children’s experience and featuring characters who look like them is one way to do that.
Smart says she believes she is the first Christmas Mother to hand out books on the parade route, although she had to wait on approval for the mission. “I was discouraged from handing out things because it would slow down the parade,” Smart said. “But it was something I wanted to do and they gave me permission.”
Her most memorable moments as Christmas Mother include working with dozens of volunteers, friends, and friends of friends, to transform a Richmond trolley into a Brooklyn cityscape inspired by Ezra Jack Keats’ classic children’s book. Another special group helped her gift wrap books that she gave to students at Chimborazo Elementary School. All of the volunteer efforts “showed that books matter and diverse characters matter.” Smart also cherished the reaction of children she gave books to throughout the parade route and at Chimborazo. “It was neat to see some of the kids’ faces light up [because] someone they didn’t even know was thinking about them and wanted them
to have a particular book.” She also enjoyed “seeing kids who aren’t represented typically in children’s literature seeing characters who look something like them.”
What also made it appealing to serve as Christmas Mother for 2014 was a change in the distribution of funds, she said. To celebrate its eightieth year, the Times-Dispatch Christmas Mother Fund partnered with the Community Foundation to distribute grants to eighty local organizations, including the YWCA, Elk Hill Farm, Hanover Christmas Mother, and many more. “They weren’t just giving all the money to one organization like they had done in the past, they had a process to identify other organizations who also provide assistance during the holiday season that may be lesser known, like Friends Association for Children,” said Smart. “There are so many groups, individuals and organizations working hard daily to help people who have so little.”
Seven months after her Christmas duties ended, Smart is no longer a Richmond resident. But she remains involved.
“We were in Richmond for six years, and there is some work I am building momentum on, so I don’t feel ready to drop everything I was doing. I still want to have a philanthropic presence there,” said Smart, who will continue to serve on the Community Foundation Board, among other commitments.
“People will see me. I’m not totally gone. And there are cell phones, the Internet, and flights,” she said with another chuckle.
According to Denise Bird, director of marketing and communications with RTD, the 2015 Richmond Christmas Mother has been chosen and will be revealed later this month. So the good news is, there are new Christmas Mothers, hard at work in the city and in the counties, supporting organizations to help multiply the blessings of the holiday season for children and families in need.