Andre Dunbar-Smith, a 2014 children’s home graduate, values self-reflection. He’s constantly thinking of ways to improve his character, actions and motives in life. Andre credits the children’s home for this trait.
“They teach you to look in the mirror at yourself and make yourself better,” Andre said. “You don’t have a mom and a dad, but you have a lot of adults around you telling you how you can improve. It’s allowed me to transform myself many times.”
At just 7 years old, Andre left the life he knew in center-city Harrisburg, including his mother, to come to the children’s home. The biggest adjustment he experienced after moving to his new home was having a routine.
“I never really had a bedtime,” Andre recalled. “It seemed like none of my friends at school were operating on such a tight schedule.”
Since he’s entered adulthood, Andre is grateful that the importance of a routine was ingrained in him at a young age.
“It’s important to get on a routine and to make it a productive routine,” Andre said. “I’m always thinking about what needs to be done and what time I have to do it.”
After high school, Andre graduated from West Chester University in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, thanks to the support of generous donors. His 11 years at the children’s home sparked his interest for non-profit work after graduation.
Andre moved to Philadelphia and now works for The Common Market, a nonprofit with a mission to provide communities and institutions with good food from sustainable family farms. His role in operations and distribution for the organization has opened his eyes to the lack of healthy foods available in impoverished areas of the country.
“I help make sure the food gets to where it needs to go,” Andre said. “You can see how something as simple as healthy food impacts a community.”
Andre’s job takes him back home, in a way, as the organization works with and buys products from farmers in Lancaster County.
“What we do is especially important in inner cities,” Andre said. “We give kids healthy options at school, and we also help alleviate ‘food deserts.’”
In Philadelphia and other major cities, the nearest grocery store is an average of four miles from a person’s home. If individuals don’t have easy access to transportation, they struggle to buy healthy foods.
“I know at the children’s home, I always had a balanced meal prepared for me,” Andre said. “Whether I liked it, or not, it was there.”
Andre believes the future of hydroponics (producing food in a controlled, soil-less setting) can help children who don’t have a similar escape.
“Hydroponics can give areas that can’t sustain traditional farming methods a way to grow fresh produce year ’round,” Andre said.
Andre’s interest in hydroponics and its potential benefit on public health has encouraged him to consider returning to school for a master’s degree in public policy.
“The children’s home allowed me to be a kid,” Andre said. “They gave me a fruitful childhood because they were big on getting out there and exploring. I remember my house parents saying, ‘Be outside, don’t stay in this house.’ I’m still getting out there and exploring.”
Andre’s relationships with the children’s home staff who inspired him have continued and evolved.
“Besides the friendships, the pool days, sports camps and playing in the backyard, I found my faith at the children’s home,” Andre said. “That foundation as a man of faith is going to stick with me for the rest of my life. [House parent] Mr. Gomes and I still talk and read scripture together every week.”
Andre believes “he is who he is” because of the investment donors put into him.
“My future would have been different considering the neighborhood I was from and the economical state of my family,” he said. “I know the donors don’t get to meet every single kid or hear every success story, but I want them to know their willingness to help is what’s changed the trajectory of my life.”
“Here you have a kid from inner city graduating from high school, then college in four years, then entering the workforce,” Andre said. “The donors should be proud of this. It’s a confirmation that they’re doing the right thing.”
While some may hear Andre’s story and think he grew up at a disadvantage, Andre disagrees. His journey has allowed him to think deeply about what kind of man, husband and father he wants to be.
“I will always analyze myself, my actions and things I’ve done,” Andre said. “I want to teach my children to do the same one day. I want them to be kids and get dirty. I want them to get out and explore themselves and what’s around them.”