After what she described as a "rough week," Valerie Nicholas assembled sandwiches and other foodstuffs in her Laurel home and headed into a night that would quickly degenerate into freezing rain.
The first stop Jan. 23 was the parking lot at the Old Country Buffet, where Nicholas met Bill Jahn, a cab driver for more than 30 years who likes to reminisce about transporting Muhammad Ali to the Capital Center.
Jahn said he'd been out since 2 a.m. and wanted hot coffee; Nicholas handed him a bag of food and promised to get cash for him from an ATM a little later that evening.
According to Jahn, the two met over two years ago when Jahn's EBT card bounced in a Safeway checkout line and Nicholas stepped up and paid for his groceries. She helped him find shelter — he currently lives in a rented room on Contee Road — and has provided him with food and other assistance almost daily since.
"It's like she literally took me off the streets when I didn't have a home," Jahn said.
A survivor of sexual abuse and domestic violence, Nicholas said she's "been out here helping people since I can remember."
She said she started preparing food and reaching out to those in need on the street almost 20 years ago because she felt disheartened about the pedestrian way she'd seen homeless people treated.
"I don't really care about much except getting these people off the street," Nicholas said. "I do this because I know what it's like to hurt."
After meeting with Jahn last Friday, Nicholas, who serves on the Laurel City Council, caught up with Navy veteran Andy Fisher, 56, a single parent she met a few weeks ago after learning of his living situation from his mother at Bethany Community Church.
Fisher said he moved to the area to be near family after his wife died in 2011, and had a job with a local bioresearch facility. He said he left his job because it didn't allow any time to care for his two daughters.
Fisher lives with the girls, ages 11 and 14, in a single hotel room on Washington Boulevard. He's been unemployed since May 2012, and is seeking work in medical billing.
"I know that it's just a matter of time," Fisher said. "Valerie is making it a little easier right now."
As she handed him bags of sandwiches, water, nonperishable food and a warm coat for one of the girls, Nicholas promised to contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Fisher's behalf.
"We're going to find you a job," she said. "It's time to start living — and not like this. I want to see you in a home with your mother and children."
Feeding the hungry
Nicholas' passion for ministering to people in crisis started when she worked for the federal government in Washington. She said it began at a Wendy's on K Street, where patrons walking in and out of the fast food restaurant passed by a group of people asking for even a bite of food.
As a Christian, Nicholas said, she could not sit and eat while hungry people watched, so one day in 1998 she spent the $20 or so she had in her pocket to buy food to feed about six of the people outside the Wendy's, in spite of being heckled by the other patrons.
Nicholas didn't have a car then, but said she started making sandwiches and walking the streets of Washington to deliver food to those who were homeless.
She began reaching out to the homeless in Laurel when she moved there in 2001. In her view, Laurel's homeless situation has grown worse since then. Nicholas said she is especially concerned about an increase she has seen in the number of young women in their late teens and early 20s who are homeless.
"[Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services] is here and they do a lot of great things, and there's the Day Resource Center on the Howard County side providing services, but there are still so many people with no place to sleep," Nicholas said.
LARS is a faith-based ministry on Laurel Avenue that provides support services to homeless and low-income individuals and families under a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Leah Paley, deputy director of LARS, said the agency assisted 167 people over the age of 18 and two children who were homeless during the 2014 fiscal year that ended June 30.
According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last summer, there were 686 homeless children and adults in Prince George's County in fiscal year 2013, a number that decreased to 654 in fiscal year 2014. In Howard County, the number decreased from 203 to 170, according to the HUD data.
Paley said she has noticed a striking jump in the number of homeless females who are served through LARS.
"With regards to the [Laurel] Winter Shelter, 68 men and 20 women have registered for the shelter but on any given night, we have about 30 men and 10 women," Paley said.
Nicholas thinks the solution is to open a large center housing comprehensive human services — social services, case management, emergency shelter, health insurance, a clothes closet and a food pantry — under one roof.
Similar plans are underway in Howard County, where the Day Resource Center on Route 1, near the Jessup-North Laurel border, provides services to about 75 homeless people each day, and its staff said they are running out of room. County officials are planning to build an enlarged center near the intersection of Routes 1 and 32, with the Day Resource Center on the ground floor and the upper two levels reserved for housing.
Triumph over abuse
The first African American woman appointed, and then elected, to the Laurel City Council in 2011, Nicholas said she spends more than 20 hours a week attending council meetings, work sessions and other meetings in her role as councilwoman.
She said she gets a lot of calls from business owners and individuals about a variety of issues such as trash, lights, parking and permits for different things. But as a councilwoman, she finds that people are eager to tell her about their human services needs, and she encourages anyone needing assistance or who can help to contact her.
Assisting people in need, especially youth, Nicholas said, stems from her own triumph over sexual abuse and domestic violence as a young person.
Nicholas' mother died when she was 8 years old. Her father, an amputee who was blind and diabetic, was unable to protect Nicholas from what she described as severe beatings and sexual assaults from her father's live-in girlfriend.
In 1986, Nicholas left Roanoke and moved to Washington, but didn't totally escape domestic abuse. In 1994, while working for U.S. Sen. John Danforth, Nicholas said she would go to a makeup artist before work to hide the bruises and black eyes inflicted by her then-boyfriend. Nicholas said that abusive relationship, her last, culminated in the loss of a baby girl who was stillborn at seven months.
Nicholas said she often spends early morning hours counseling victims and providing a hotline service to anyone in crisis.
In 2007, she founded her own nonprofit, Love Is Not Enough, to help others battle domestic violent. Nicholas said she hopes to secure grant money to expand the nonprofit and lead as many victims as she can out of abusive situations.
"I will live a life of victory and not defeat," she said.
As a mentor and motivational speaker, Nicholas has addressed the Lovely Ladies of Laurel, an all-female mentoring organization, on several occasions since founding Love Is Not Enough.
She made a deep impression on Laurel High School student Gelena Alexander, who presented Nicholas an award from the mentoring group in 2012. Now in college, Alexander remains in close contact with her mentor.
"Women like Councilwoman Valerie give hope to young ladies like me who are growing up with visions to be successful women," Alexander said.
Alexander's mother, Valerie Railey, said that she and her daughter have benefited greatly from Nicholas' friendship and many acts of kindness.
Nicholas attends church at the New Life Christian Center on Mallard Court founded by the Rev. Archie Harris. She said she provides scripture cards with her food deliveries to feed the spirit as well as the body.
Nicholas also serves as a volunteer chaplain at Laurel Regional Hospital, where she is employed as the volunteer services coordinator. Nicholas said she loves working at the hospital with all the patients and staff, and spends long hours there.
Most of Nicholas' personal activities serving others after hours are self-funded; she said spends her council salary, which is $7,500 per year, on supplies and food that she prepares and packs in her own kitchen.
Nicholas does get some help from various sources. Dominique Coates, customer services manager at the Giant in Fairlawn, has given her grocery gift cards at Thanksgiving and Christmas; he said the two have partnered to assist some of his employees with housing.
Her brother, Eugene Nicholas, of Cary, N.C.; and her godmother, 84-year-old Doris Harris, of Washington, D.C., occasionally donate money to buy food supplies.
Eugene Nicholas said that his sister has always "had the heartbeat" for the compassionate work that she does. He remembers when she started volunteering in nursing homes as a teenager, and said she was also caregiver for her father and another brother, who is also deceased.
"But she's my baby sister, and I caution her to be careful," Nicholas said.
Nicholas said he just wants his sister to be safe and vigilant within her calling. But Harris said that she is not concerned about her goddaughter's safety. She only worries that Nicholas will overextend herself because "she doesn't know when to stop."
Nicholas said she leaves her house at 5:45 a.m. weekdays to deliver meals (usually at least 100 sandwiches with healthy sides and water) to those gathered at the parking lots at Old Country Buffet and 7-Eleven near Home Depot, and outside the post office on Main Street.
If there is food left over, she simply drives around Laurel until she finds people who need it. She said that she also prepares and delivers food on the weekends, but a little more sporadically. And although she prays for much more help with the work she's doing, she loves it.
"I think this is what I'm going to do until the day I die," Nicholas said. "I can't imagine doing anything else."