Southern Smoke awards $4.5M to hospitality works since start of pandemic

Houston, Texas (KTRK) -- Chris Shepherd's Southern Smoke Foundation has served several roles since its inception in 2015. It began as a charity to help fight multiple sclerosis, pivoted to help victims of Hurricane Harvey, and now serves hospitality workers who've fallen on hard times. The non-profit hired a second full-time employee right before the pandemic, but COVID-19 forced the organization to grow at a rapid rate.

"It was off to the races," said Shepherd. "We had so many kind folks donating money and helping the foundation out."

Southern Smoke has awarded $4.5 million to 2,281 recipients since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The money has come from donations, partnerships with organizations like Karbach Brewing Co, as well as some unlikely places. Chef David Chang won $1 million on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" for Southern Smoke in November, and actor Justin Long has been donating the proceeds of his January videos on Cameo to Shepherd's foundation.

"We found out in September," said Shepherd on Chang's television appearance. "It wasn't just the money, but the awareness of the foundation."

Shepherd says they try to distribute funds as quickly as possible, with applicants facing health problems or eviction getting priority. In addition to helping restaurant workers financially, Southern Smoke has also hired furloughed workers to serve as case managers and application screeners. It's his hope this will provide them with meaningful work until it's time for them to return to the hospitality industry.

"I got super fortunate," said case manager Alison Robbins. "The stories we've had are so emotional."

The non-profit has also expanded to Chicago, as a private donation made that possible in late 2020. Shepherd hopes their expansion to Illinois can serve as a template moving forward.

"Maybe it's Southern Smoke New York, or Southern Smoke LA, or Southern Smoke Memphis," he said. "They can look at this realize there's somebody there."
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