Former Project HOME Youth Shares Path to Success
Miles Smith Jr. remembers when Project HOME began to establish a presence in his North Philadelphia neighborhood, when our co-founders Sister Mary Scullion and Joan McConnon along with people with lived experience of homelessness began working to talk with local leaders about a vision for ending homelessness and alleviating poverty.
No local leader was more influential than Helen Brown. “Miss” Helen, as she was affectionately known, would become an institution at Project HOME, providing the early credibility needed to put down roots in the neighborhood. The following two decades would see the addition of an education center, one supportive residence for families experiencing homelessness and another for men in recovery from homelessness and substance use disorder, entire blocks renovated through the homeownership program, a community center, and, finally, a wellness center.
More than anything, Helen wanted to create an environment where kids could thrive rather than just survive. Along with other neighborhood leaders, Ms. Tee and Chris Whaley, she wanted an emphasis on education and neighborhood revitalization.
“We lived at 23rd and Berks with my grandma and my mom’s two sisters. I think my grandma started that process. There was a close relationship with Helen Brown and my mom. Probably about the age of second or third grade, there was already a connection there,” Miles remembers.
Miles began going to the Helen Brown Community Center—then known as St. Elizabeth’s Community Center and called “The Rectory” by folks from the neighborhood—after school and whenever he had free time. “The Rectory on 23rd Street literally served as a place for you to experience what life could be like outside of the world that we were already living in. My mother and her sisters made sure that Helen Brown was like a part of my life.”
Sister Mary recalls the younger Miles as a kid who “was one of our actively engaged youth. [Miles] was always there to help Miss Helen set up for neighborhood celebrations or events. . . He had a smile for everyone he met.”
One of Helen’s most impactful projects was the North Philly Foot Stompers, a drill team made up of local youth.
Ten-year-old Miles knew he wanted to join their drill team. “I was one of the original members and I had to work my way up from holding the flag to playing the snare drum,” says Miles.
A few years later when Miles was around 13 years old, he developed a passion for basketball. Miles was filled with curiosity and enthusiasm for both activities. He enjoyed being a part of two separate worlds.
“I was playing on the NPFS drumline developing relationships, that was one culture. While also being a part of the basketball community was another culture. These were two different worlds that allowed me to navigate not being caught up in the streets. I was always unconsciously looking at different individuals and observing how they are and the way they act.”
Miles may not have realized it at the time, but these activities would eventually lead him down the path to a career in academia, working with a new generation of young people.
Miles graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in anthropology, sociology, psychology, and a minor in prelaw. He loved being on the basketball court and aspired to teach and mentor others the way his community helped him. “When I was young, I always had a desire to learn. At every stage in my life, I had great teachers.”
Coaching college basketball came as a natural fit for Miles. He began coaching at Mercer County Community College and enjoyed an environment that blended his love for the game with helping youth. “We built a team based on empathy, humility, and sacrifice, and it wasn’t always easy. These were the core values that were produced in an authentic way. It was very, very difficult, but in the end, individuals were transferred to four-year institutions,” said Miles.
Three years later he went on to coach at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) under Kelly Williams who coached Miles at Mercer County Community College. After 1 year at TCNJ Miles landed a head coaching position at Wilson College. While there, he coached a student-athlete named Ben Holl.
Ben says Miles recruited a variety of players and had a way of creating unity and camaraderie among people who may not come together on their own.
“He was bringing kids from all different types of backgrounds and having them play [basketball] together and really building the dynamic of a group where we had a couple of kids from money and some don’t. We had one friend from Southwest Philly, and then our other friend from Wilmington and then like me from Friends Select. I think he just did a really good job of bringing our group together and having us work together. It’s no easy thing.”
Coincidentally, Ben now works at Project HOME in the finance department. “[Miles] really taught me how important it is to trust in other people, especially if you’re part of a team, like letting everyone do their job, letting go a little bit. . . He always gave me encouragement and believed in me, so I will appreciate him forever for that.”
A New Role
In January 2023, Miles embarked on his latest professional leap at Princeton University as their Associate Athletic Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. “It’s a lot of strategic planning, educational programming, and analyzing data to engage in transformational learning .” Miles goes on to say the core purpose of this position is to build sustainable relationships, something he’s been passionate about achieving in all aspects of life. “I’m here to help transform, self-reflection. Understanding that the feeling of exclusion will help guide the ability for all to feel inclusion. My perspective is that if you treat people the way you want to be treated you become unconsciously judgmental, however, if we focus on treating people the way they want to be treated we unconsciously become curious. If practiced and normalized exercising curiosity can become transformational.” He believes a core foundation behind DEI involves humility and empathy towards everyone’s experiences.
Throughout his personal and professional journey, Miles says one of his most memorable lessons learned was from his time at Project HOME.
“If I can sum it up, in one word, it would be grace. Which is something that I think I’ve seen consistently. Throughout my time growing up, North Philly was a crazy place, but there’s so much beauty in it. And individuals like Helen Brown and organizations like Project HOME represent that beauty so small in such a big city. But those are the little mustard seeds. And I think it just keeps getting planted.” Miles encourages anyone aiming for success not to fear failure because it’s an inevitable part of the process. “After you fall, learn how to consistently grow.”
Miles believes we should always strive for more growth and he will continue to help others on that journey. Sister Mary agrees.
“We are so proud of his accomplishments and so grateful that he continues to visit the Honickman Learning Center Comcast Technology Labs and inspire our current students to be actively engaged in the many opportunities to learn and to develop their talents and skills.”