White Castle made her feel ‘safe’ as a homeless teen. Over 20 years later, she got married there
A newlywed woman reflects on the kindness of one fast-food worker that helped her get to where she is today.
In 1994, When Jamie West was 12 years old, she was out on her own, living on the street after a tumultuous beginning of her childhood. Saving graces were few and far between.
“I was in 94 foster homes, six shelters, a group home and a treatment center when they ran out of places to keep me,” West tells TODAY.com. “There were no beds and by that time, I realized the system was probably going to kill me, so I took off on my own.”
West says she first went into the foster care system in Arizona at four years old when her parents, both struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, couldn’t care for her any longer.
“I was born to two adults who should have had to apply for a license in order to procreate. Then the Arizona CPS system in the '80s was really bad. Like, really, really bad,” West says, adding that her time in that system led to some very dangerous situations. “I had been running away for a few years prior and by the time I was 12, I figured how to not run back into the system and how to stay out.”
As a preteen, West stayed in the Mill Avenue homeless encampment in Tempe, Arizona, an area known for its unhoused population, with other kids like her. “We slept underneath the Mill Avenue Bridge, and looked out for each other as best as we could.”
West says she felt lost at this time, but a conversation with a spiritual man led her to want to find herself, and she left Arizona, finding herself in California, where she met a member of counterculture group the Rainbow Family who showed her kindness. West says she stayed with the group for almost two years, but her journey wasn’t over.
“After a while, I ended up getting really sick and I realized that once again, I was making life choices that were gonna end up killing me,” she says, adding that she was around 15 when she left California, traveling around the country while picking up odd jobs and farm work.
“I’d hitchhike from one place to another trying to find work, just rambled across the country,” West says. “I had been hungry for over a week when I came across my first White Castle.”
West says she can’t be sure of the exact location, but it was a White Castle somewhere in the South. She says other fast-food chains and restaurants would sometimes not even allow her entry into the building, but this time, things went very differently.
“I walked into the White Castle, the first one I had ever seen, and this woman goes, ‘Oh, sugar, you poor thing. You go on in that bathroom and get yourself cleaned up,’ and so I did,” West says. “I cried in the bathroom because I was being treated like a human.”
While she was in the bathroom, the White Castle employee had bagged every burger cooking on the grill, placing each and every one in bags for the teen. West started to make a fuss about getting that much food for free, but the good samaritan wasn’t having it.
“She said she was just gonna throw them away anyway, and so it was best to go to feed somebody,” West says, adding that the woman poured her three glasses of ice water to go with the food. After eating a bit in the store, she split the rest with others, estimating that it was about three days worth of food given to her for nothing.
“Every time after that, when I saw a White Castle, I knew it was somewhere that I would be safe to run to, and if I was starving, I would be able to get fed,” West says. “It wasn’t something I wanted to take advantage of because the system was so pure. And it was such a beautiful experience to get treated like a human being. I didn’t want to ruin it.”
At 17, her bout of homelessness ended when she found an aunt that was able to take her in. After years of unlearning behaviors and kicking habits she had become accustomed to during her teen years, by her 20s, she was back in Arizona, where she met the man who would become her husband, Drew Schmitt.
“I worked for a roofing company when I met Jamie 15 years ago,” Schmitt tells TODAY.com, adding that he and West decided to form their Arizona-based foam roofing business, Schmitt Roofing, about eight years ago. “It’s a neat little niche business. Jamie operates all the pumps on the ground and I’m up on the roof squirting the stuff down. That’s our whole business right there.”
When West heard that White Castle was coming to Arizona for the first time in 2019, she was excited, remembering the kindness of the workers that helped her throughout her teens. “I freaked out. I turned to Drew and I was like, ‘We’ve got to camp out! We’ve got to storm the castle! I want to get crowns and battle axes and swords,’” she says.
And she wasn't kidding. Local news actually interviewed the couple at the time, who camped out to be the first people to enter the building. West was wearing a crown, and shared her story. White Castle then inducted the couple into its Hall of Fame — a ceremony that led to the couple’s engagement.
“The vice president Jamie Richardson welcomes me into the family and gives me a big hug and then turns me around and Drew is on one knee proposing,” West recalls. He was holding a sword, because, of course, the couple was dressed in renaissance costume for the ceremony.
For the wedding, there was only one acceptable location on the couple’s list: White Castle. Luckily, it also happens to have a kitchen that can churn out food for 200 guests with ease.
In early May, the couple said their "I dos" in regalia fitting two White Castle superfans: He in handmade and custom articulated leather armor from Rose and Thorn Armory, and she in a blue beaded and embellished gown with a matching crown. “My dress was a quinceanera dress because it’s our 15th year together,” West added.
During the reception, which featured a performance from a local drag queen, guests noshed on cheesecake-on-a-stick and a literal mountain of sliders. The couple also had a giant slider cake made for the event, which served as the cherry on top of a long journey to wedded bliss.
“We are happy beyond words for the joy that Jamie and Drew share, and honored that we were able to play a part in the greatest royal wedding ever!” Richardson, the aforementioned White Castle vice president, tells TODAY.com. “Jamie’s story serves as a reminder of the power of kindness and being there for one another as we keep focus on our purpose of feeding the souls of Craver generations everywhere.”
Now married and a small business owner, West takes a moment to think about what she would say to the first White Castle employee who provided her with a safe space when she was a teen.
"I would hug her and just say, 'Thank you for being the reason I exist right now, not knowing what you were doing and just feeding somebody because you’re a good human,'" West said. “Honestly, I don’t even have the words.”
This article was originally published on TODAY.com