He was 23 years old and living on his own after growing up in the foster care system.
"I went to see him living in his apartment, amongst black garbage bags," Smith said. "It was unacceptable. ... I immediately thought of my nephew, who was around the same age, and I did what I would do for him."
Los Angeles County has the largest foster youth population in the country. At 18 to 21 years old, they age out of the system, often with no family, financial or community support. And the odds are stacked against them.
Statistics show that many former foster youth will experience homelessness, poverty or incarceration along with higher rates of suicide, teen pregnancy and drug addiction.
"They're out on their own," said Smith, 47. "They finally get to that amazing place of having their own space, and then they're sleeping on the floor."
In 2014, Smith gathered a team of volunteers, collected donated furniture and household items and transformed Barry's makeshift living space into a real home.
That experience led Smith to start A Sense of Home. The nonprofit has since created comfortable living spaces for 130 young people who have aged out of the system.
"These kids have such resilience and are so inspiring. They are so incredibly positive and hopeful," Smith said. "I just feel it's incumbent on us -- the community -- to be their village."
CNN's Allie Torgan spoke with Smith about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: You sort of stumbled into helping foster youth before you met Barry. How did that happen?
Smith: Several years ago, my partner, Melissa, and I were looking into adoption. We happened to ask about the children that are taken away from their families -- what about them? That's when I discovered the foster system. And I was frankly appalled and wanted to get involved. We were so moved by the plight of foster youth that we began to volunteer (with) organizations that care for (them).
Barry found me through a design video posted on Facebook. It was miraculous how we transformed (his apartment). And this was such an easy, tangible way to make a difference. So I just kept doing it. It just snowballed. It seemed really clear to me that we as a community could share what we have too much of, give to these kids that have no family, no community and who are sleeping, eating and studying on the floor.
CNN: How do you find the young people your group helps?
Smith: We get referrals from agencies across L.A. County and surrounding counties. The youth must have a referral so we can establish that they truly were in the system.
They also have to secure an apartment, enroll in college courses and/or be working 30 hours per week and have a GED or be studying for it. Obtaining the apartment is the most important factor. We meet them halfway. They have overcome so much to get to that place.
Nearly all of them have experienced homelessness, and most, if not all, have experienced abuse. Eighty percent are young women; 30% have their own babies. Many are guardians to their own siblings.
CNN: The spaces you and your team create look like something out of a magazine. How does it all come together?
Smith: We have an all-foster-youth staff who collect the donations, store it at the warehouse, organize what items we're getting to them, load it onto the truck and then are there to coordinate the volunteers and help them get everything installed in the home.
Every week we do a minimum of one home, outfitting their space with every conceivable item one needs to set up their first-ever home -- from soap to bedding and beds and curtains to fully stocking their kitchen with organic food. We provide them with tables and chairs and a desk on which to study.
Art is really important. So we try and find pieces that really reflect the aspirations of the youth so that they can look up and feel really inspired by the art on their walls.
CNN: The work has become about more than just setting up furniture and walking away.
Smith: All the youth come and pay it forward. They've got a community of former foster youth and the volunteers.
When we do a home celebration, a housewarming, (it's) a time for everyone to chill and hang out and break bread, to do spoken word, to tell their stories and share with the youth that are just receiving their home. It's just amazing. They get to hang out and be together and network and find job opportunities and get mentors.
That foundation of home, which our family provides for us -- they don't have that. By setting up their first home, it gives them the foundation from which they can succeed.
Want to get involved? Check out the A Sense of Home
website and see how to help.
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