Alabama Native Sets Teens on a Positive Path

Daily Point of Light # 7763 Mar 7, 2024

Meet Daily Point of Light Award honoree Brian Smith. Read his story, and nominate an outstanding volunteer or family as a Daily Point of Light.

Brian Smith was born in Montgomery, Alabama, and has lived there his entire life. Growing up in a single-parent household, Brian understood early on that his mother was going above and beyond in helping members of the community even as she took care of the family and worked two jobs. With so many kids growing up in single-parent households and starting on the road to a lifetime of trouble, Brian saw a way to change the narrative. Now, he seeks to give them a positive direction and a head start to success. Brian started his own nonprofit while working as an employment specialist at the Windcreek Casino in Montgomery.

The inspiration for the Blueheart Foundation 334 name comes from the heart: “Blue” because of Brian’s nickname that came about as a result of being born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck and his tiny body completely blue. Brian’s mother refused to give up on him, and he was eventually resuscitated. This continues to inspire Brian not to give up on the kids he serves. “Heart” comes from Brian’s grandmother, who said, “If you give, give from the heart.” 334 is the Montgomery area code. It pays homage to the city of Montgomery, where the foundation was started. Montgomery presents the foundation with opportunities to serve and a team of amazing people who come together to make it happen. “However big we get,” says Brian, “it all started right here in Montgomery.”

Brian Smith, founder of Blueheart Foundation 334. /Courtesy Brian Smith

What inspires you to volunteer?

I got the idea of volunteering from my mom. Even though she worked two jobs, she still found time to help people, including creating care packages for female prisoners. She has also volunteered at church and a local nursing home. When I was young, I asked questions, like why she was giving time and items to other people. She said, “it’s an inspiration to give because what you give, you get back tenfold.” I didn’t understand it at the time. Once I got older, I realized what she meant, and that’s when I started focusing on helping my community.

Tell us about your volunteer role with The Blueheart Foundation 334.

I founded The Blueheart Foundation 334 as a way to support underserved youth and families in the Montgomery area. I try to serve through a variety of unique activities.

We mentor high school band kids and prepare them for collegiate band. We donate funds for new uniforms and instruments. I played the tuba for the Carver High School Mighty Marching Wolverine Band and later in the university band, the Alabama State University Mighty Marching Hornet Band. I’ve been mentoring the kids at Carver High School for 18 years now. I talk to them about band, music and life. We also hold a high school drum line competition. Kids who participate in this competition have the opportunity to apply for scholarships during the competition, because college recruiters attend. The first place trophy is six feet tall. Everybody wants to win it.

We hold a free school supply giveaway every year for kids in the Montgomery County Public School System.
Once a month, I surprise one lucky customer at a grocery store with $100. I wait until they’ve filled their cart and placed their items on the belt. Then, I tell them that I’m paying for their groceries. This is a huge hit in Montgomery.

One of the most rewarding parts of what I do is the Bow Tie Club, a monthly club for underserved young men. We mentor them and empower them through teaching them social etiquette. I teach them how to tie a tie and a bowtie. I teach interview skills and how to write a resume. I teach social skills like eye contact, the importance of a handshake, how to write thank you notes, how to conduct a conversation and table etiquette. I teach them how to combine colors when wearing a suit and tie and what to wear or not to wear during interviews. I hold mock interviews every month so they’re ready for the real world when they apply for jobs. I teach them that first impressions are lasting impressions.

What inspired you to get started with this initiative?

I was a stillborn infant. I’ve experienced homelessness. I’ve experienced the pull of street life and dangerous choices. I’ve seen the violence. I want to help these kids break free from the stereotypes, to realize that they don’t have to be star athletes or rappers to succeed. I had a dream to be an astronaut. Today, you only hear kids saying they want to be the next LeBron or the next Drake. There are so many other ways to have a great life. I put the dreaming back into the minds of the kids.

I founded The Blueheart Foundation in 2014 to help underserved individuals and families directly. I got to where I am today through hard work, perseverance, fresh ideas and great partnerships with other organizations. It has not been a smooth road; I had to overcome a lack of funding and lack of cooperation from the community. I kept coming with these different ideas that eventually won people over and now I have the opportunity to serve 15-20 young men at every event.

What are your long-term plans or goals for the organization?

My number one goal is to continue serving others. I was unhoused at one point in time. I had nothing. I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from, but there was an organization to help me and guide me in getting back on my feet. I want to help others get on their feet too. I will not turn anyone away.

My second goal is to continue to inspire others to be great. In fact, that’s my slogan. I want them to get an education. I tell them, if I can do it with my background, you can do it too. I especially want young Black men to be great. I need our men to be better fathers, role models and citizens. I need our sons have better role models. I made a choice to further my life rather than end up on the streets. I let them know that the ball is in their court. They can decide right now which way their life is going to go. I keep the kids engaged and moving forward. I let them know they don’t have to beat themselves up because you don’t have everything. I tell them “Work for it, and you’ll get it.”

Third, I want to expand across the United States. Maybe my approach can help other groups and nonprofits follow the blueprint I’ve created.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?

I love seeing projects and initiatives work. I love helping these young men who say, “Mom’s always at work.” I was in their shoes. I know what it takes to get out of that hopeless situation where you think that being a rapper or football player is the only way to improve your life.

I’ve had a lot of parents say they don’t recognize their kids after they’ve gone through the Bow Tie Club. Kids I’ve mentored come back to help. After every event they always ask me about the next event and how they can help. They also ask me about helping them set up their own nonprofit and pick my brain about how I made my nonprofit popular. I tell them that when I first started, I didn’t expect it to be big. Now it’s well known. It’s grown so much. I kept going, and people started donating money.

What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?

Many community nonprofits don’t actually work together. This surprised me. Some said they wanted to collaborate, but when the actual project came up, I didn’t hear from them. I have found some great collaborators with the Shriners and Masons.

It’s hard to do things for people when they don’t appreciate it. I don’t turn anybody away and I don’t charge when people need me. If I’m here to help them, I won’t charge them. The BowTie club, the grocery giveaway and the mentoring are all free. Some nonprofit organizations charge for services like self-improvement courses. Everything I do is always free. If you need it, I will give it to you. Offering free courses and resources means I can impact more people.

A goal is pretty easy to accomplish when you have great teammates and friends to help you. The kids I help always come back to help with the foundation. Usually once the kids graduate from high school marching band, they come back to pass the torch as mentors. My wife helps so much. A lot of the inspiration and ideas on how to serve come from my wife. She is amazing at spotting needs and coming up with projects that help meet those needs and she does it in a unique way.

Tell us about future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about.

I’m looking forward to preparing several free school supply giveaways. I do three of these in different cities every year before the school year. Each giveaway is dedicated to a child who passed away due to a childhood disease, to keep their memories alive. The AvaLynn James School Supply Giveaway takes place in Enterprise, Alabama. AvaLynn passed away at just four years old. The Crystal Johnson School Supply Giveaway takes place in Montgomery, Alabama and honors my friend Crystal, who passed away at 32, just after her wedding. The Peyton Embryo School Supply Giveaway takes place in Sylacauga, Alabama. Peyton passed away at three years old.

The Daughters from Taseti Court No. 234 Oasis of Dothan, Desert of Alabama, Dothan Fire Department, Taseti Temple No. 253 Oasis of Dothan, Desert of Alabama and Shaaban Temple No.103 Oasis of Montgomery Desert of Alabama at the 3rd Annual AvaLynn James FREE School Supply Giveaway in Dothan, Alabama/Courtesy Brian Smith

Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?

It’s always important to get involved because there is always a need for help. Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, there’s always a need.

Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?

The smallest thing can be considered volunteering. Give away sandwiches. Make emergency kits with toiletry items. Give your time. Give items. If you give to someone in need, it’s volunteering. It doesn’t have to be grand, just a small gesture can go a long way.

I built a nonprofit from the ground up with no money, no experience, no design, and here we are. I kept coming up with projects and initiatives that people hadn’t seen before. I do things differently, and that gets attention.

What do you want people to learn from your story?

I’ve had a lot of challenges with my mental and physical health. My message is to never give up on anything. If you have goals, dreams or ambitions, do it and continue to do it. My mom tells me that when the doctors told her I was stillborn, she didn’t give up on me. I have that same ambition and goal for our young kids. I’m not giving up on our kids. Everybody goes through something, no matter how big or small the issue is, and it takes a strong person to go through it, learn from it and continue moving forward. It’s up to the individual to share the experience and help others. I’ve been unhoused, and I’m here to tell you it’s okay to accept a “hand up” when you need one.

Marching band saved my life. If I wasn’t going to practice and being too tired after, I probably would have gotten into trouble. I want the kids I mentor to be busy too, to stay away from street violence. If you’re busy, you can’t be in trouble. I tell them that full scholarships are easy to get when you play an instrument.

Always inspire others to be great. I want people to be greater than what they are and greater than me. We need to take care of our kids now; otherwise how will our future look? Celebrate your accomplishments no matter their size.

Do you want to make a difference in your community like Brian? Find local volunteer opportunities.

Jarmila Gorman