At a time when feel-good stories seem to get lost in the chaos of the times, a New Jersey family is stepping up to fill the void.
In 2016, Trenton’s Pearlie Mae Smith and her seven adult children won the largest Powerball lottery jackpot in the history of the Garden State. Smith bought two lottery tickets and spent the additional $1 on the Power Play.
Choosing the lump-sum option meant the family, as the sole winners, earned $284 million before taxes.
The 72-year-old matriarch believes “divine intervention” had a part to play after she dreamt of the winning numbers. As a thank you, she and her family are now paying it forward.
The Smith’s were givers long before they won the lottery
The Smith family grew up in a three-bedroom house in South Trenton. Seamus Smith, the father, was a steel-mill worker who died in 1989. An eighth sibling, Anthony Smith, died in a car accident in 1994. The family didn’t always have it easy.
The family follows the biblical principle of “sowing and reaping” with a focus on faith, education, and community. Long before winning the lottery, the family volunteered in their neighborhood.
Instead of squandering the money and becoming a topic of some sordid reality TV show, the family took their work in the community to a whole new level.
That’s not to say there weren’t the obligatory paying off bills, a few well-deserved vacations, and a bit of a house-buying spree, because they did all that. It just wasn’t all splurging though.
In fact, Pearlie Mae Smith still drives the same Subaru she did before and spends most of her time in ministry as the pastor at Calvary Pentecostal Church.
It is what came next that makes this story remarkable. The family committed 10 percent of their windfall to their church and the community.
Another promise and a project of the heart for Smith was building a new church in Bridgeton. The Mount Sinai Holy Church of America oversees more than 50,000 of Smith’s fellow church members.
The family invested $750,000 in the 400-seat church that sits on 133-acres in Cumberland County. The church will hold its first services later this year.
The Smith Foundation focuses on serving Trenton
Immediately after winning, and with the advice of experts, the family established the Smith Family Foundation with $8 million in seed money. The foundation’s mission is to “empower our community, cultivate leaders, and transform lives by providing funding and leadership development to Trenton based organizations.”
Most of the Smith family, including 29 grandchildren and 31 great-grandchildren, volunteer at the foundation. Smith and her children serve on the board of directors.
Katherine Nunnally, executive director of the foundation and one of Smith’s seven children, told the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“This is all about God’s work. The money allowed the story to unfold the way God intended it.”
The goal of the foundation is to make “socially impactful investments.” In 2016, its first year of operation, the organization donated $780,483 to:
- Local churches
- Parent advocacy group
- Family and child development center
- Rutgers Foundation
Since then, more donations landed in the hands of Trenton organizations that serve to better the lives of children and those needing a helping hand. Some other area organizations that have received funding from the foundation are:
- Big Brothers Big Sisters
- Trenton Area Soup Kitchen
- Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund
- Girl Scouts
Besides direct donations, the foundation sponsors “educational and cultural programs” to enrich the lives of Trenton’s residents.
Additionally, Nunnally said family members have individually contributed more than $16 million to personally relevant causes. While the foundation’s mission limits most of its work to the Trenton area, the family supports important projects beyond the city.
Avoiding the curse of the lottery
“You can’t win, if you don’t play,” may be one of the catchiest taglines ever. But not all lottery winners stay winners.
Consequently, lottery winners have a better chance of going bankrupt in less than five years than that of the average American.
While it has only been two years since the windfall, the Smith family seem to have found the recipe to lottery success. They still attend church on Sunday’s and sit down to family dinners once a month.
Keeping the majority of their investments close to home helps the family, directly and indirectly, support more than 85,000 Trenton residents. With nearly one in four people living in poverty, the infusion of money, programs, and volunteers stands to make a massive impact on the community the Smith’s call home.
Valerie Arthur, the oldest of Smith’s children, summed it up nicely:
“The lottery helped to accelerate what we want to do on a larger scale.”
It’s good to know that sometimes the good guys do finish first.