SMITHFIELD — An old, vacant house on North Fourth Street has quietly become a community center.
Helping and Healing Hearts, which opened in May, offers tutors and life coaches, free breakfast during the week, a food pantry for the hungry and a thrift shop where clothing often goes free to those in need. The charity’s founder offers an ear to anyone who walks through the door and helps connect visitors to the resources they need.
Located at 308 N. Fourth St., Helping and Healing Hearts is the work of Rachel Ayres, who said she founded the nonprofit after a vision from God.
Born and reared on Fourth Street, Ayres worked for years at Johnston Memorial Hospital as a surgical technologist. Later, she moved to Washington, where she worked on an organ-transplant team. Ayers moved back to Smithfield in 2011 to help her sisters through surgeries of their own.
Then, during an idle period of her life last November, she was awakened in the middle of the night. A voice spoke said to her, “You need to help your community.”
Her immediate response? “I said, ‘Are you talking to me?’” Ayers recalled. But she quickly realized the command was for her, and she took the words to heart. Ayres began the legal process to create a nonprofit and then began looking for a place to house the charity, which would feed the needy and give back to her hometown in other ways.
A year later, Ayres still tears up when she talks about the vision.
“Because I know it’s truly from God, from what happened here,” she said.
And what has happened since May? The small house has become a food pantry, thrift shop and community center all rolled into one. Rooms that once housed Smithfield’s first black elementary school in the 1800s are now full of the thrift store’s clothing, where most items range from $2 to $7.
When students need help on school assignments, Ayres calls a tutor to come by and teach them. And she hands out about 30 bagged breakfasts each Tuesday through Friday: a hot sausage, hard-boiled egg, fruit and a small cake.
‘A very giving person’
Though she didn’t start with much, Ayres said the resources trickle in as people are able to spare what they have.
“A lot of it comes from the neighbors and people from the church,” she said. “As long as I keep getting food, I keep cooking.”
A handful of companies donate food for the pantry and free breakfast, and people bring clothes for the thrift shop. One group even donated a piano, which Ayres hopes to auction.
“We don’t have a lot of funds, but we’re doing what we can do to serve the community, and it’s paying,” Ayres said.
Next-door neighbor Beth Chiet said Ayres is turning the neighborhood around.
“First off, she’s a very giving person; she’ll give you the shirt off her back,” Chiet said.
Ayres helped her get medication when she couldn’t afford it.
Ayres is also cleaning up the neighborhood, Shite said. Some nearby apartments were drug-infested until Ayres arrived, she said.
For her part, Ayres said she simply spoke to each person in the apartments and offered to help them find resources to get clean and find new housing. Some took her up on the offer; police eventually ran the others off, Ayres said.
Upcoming community event
Ayres, who aims to grow the charity, is registered with the state but is saving up the $800 needed to register as a federal nonprofit. She’s also repairing the vacant house next door for more space.
But first up is Holy Fest Unity Day, an event Ayres hopes will bring the community together. From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, the street will be closed to traffic so people can listen to gospel music, kids can play games and make crafts and adults can learn about community groups. They can also register to vote and sign up for insurance under the Affordable Care Act.
Karen Lauer, who serves on the Helping and Healing Hearts board of directors, met Ayres at training for the Guardian ad Litem program.
“This is really a community effort,” she said. “It really is like a neighbor helping a neighbor.”