In 1994, when Jamie West was 12 years old, she was living alone on the streets after a tumultuous start to her childhood. Salvation graces were scarce.
“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 then I realized the system was probably going to kill me, so I went off on my own.”
West says she first went into foster care in Arizona when she was four years old, when her parents, who both struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, could no longer care for her.
“I was born of two adults who should have applied for a permit to reproduce. Then the Arizona CPS system in the ’80s was really bad. Like, really, really bad,” says West, adding that her time in that system led to some very dangerous situations. “I had run away a few years before and by the time I was 12 I was figuring out how not to walk back into the system and how to stay out.”
As a young teen, West stayed with other kids like her at the Mill Avenue homeless camp in Tempe, Arizona, an area known for its homeless population. “We slept under the Mill Avenue Bridge and took care of each other as best we could.”
West says she felt lost at the time, but a conversation with a spiritual man led her to want to find herself, and she left Arizona and found herself in California, where she met a member of the counterculture group the Rainbow Family who showed her kindness showed. West says she stayed with the group for almost two years, but her journey wasn’t over.
“After a while I got really sick and realized I was making life choices again that would eventually kill me,” she says, adding that she was about 15 when she left California and traveled across the country. while picking up chores and farm work.
“I hitchhiked from place to place to find work, just wandering the country,” says West. “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 to the south. She says other fast food chains and restaurants sometimes wouldn’t even let her into the building, but this time it was very different.
“I walked into the White Castle, the first thing I’d ever seen, and this woman says, ‘Oh, honey, poor thing. You go in that bathroom and get yourself cleaned up,” and so did I,” says West. “I cried in the bathroom because I was treated like a human being.”
While in the bathroom, the White Castle employee had bagged each burger cooking on the grill and bagged them all for the teen. West was getting worked up about getting so much food for free, but the Good Samaritan wasn’t in the mood.
“She said she’d just throw them away anyway, so it was best to feed someone,” says West, adding that the woman poured her three glasses of ice water to go with the food. After eating a little at the store, she shared the rest with others, estimated to be about three days’ worth of food given to her for free.
“Every time I saw a white castle after that, I knew it was a safe place to run to, and if I was hungry I could get something to eat,” says West. “It wasn’t something I wanted to take advantage of because the system was so pure. And it was such a beautiful experience to be treated like a human being. I didn’t want to ruin it.”
When she was 17, her period of homelessness ended when she found an aunt to take her in. After years of unlearning and kicking behavior she had become accustomed to during her teenage years, she was back in Arizona by the age of 20, where she met the man who would become her husband, Drew Schmitt.
“I was working for a roofing company when I met Jamie 15 years ago,” Schmitt tells TODAY.com, adding that he and West decided to start their Arizona-based foam roofing company, Schmitt Roofing, about eight years ago. “It’s a nice little niche business. Jamie runs all the pumps on the ground and I’m on the roof to spray the stuff down. That’s our whole business there.”
When West learned that White Castle would be coming to Arizona for the first time in 2019, she was thrilled and remembered the kindness of the workers who helped her through her teenage years. “I freaked out. I turned to Drew and I thought, ‘We have to camp! We have to storm the castle! I want crowns and battle axes and swords,'” she says.
And she wasn’t kidding. Local news at the time interviewed the couple, who camped out to be the first people to enter the building. West wore 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 recalled. He was holding a sword, as the couple was, of course, dressed in renaissance costume for the ceremony.
For the wedding, there was only one suitable location on the couple’s list: White Castle. Fortunately, it also has a kitchen that can prepare food for 200 guests with ease.
In early May, the couple said their “I do’s” in regalia matching two White Castle superfans: him in handmade and custom leather armor from Rose and Thorn Armory, and she in a blue beaded and embellished dress with a matching crown. “My dress was a quinceanera dress because it’s our 15th year together,” added West.
During the reception, which featured a performance by a local drag queen, guests feasted 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 icing on the cake of a long journey to marital bliss.
“We are beyond words of joy for the joy Jamie and Drew share, and honored to have been able to play a part in the greatest royal wedding ever!” Richardson, White Castle’s aforementioned vice president, tells TODAY.com. “Jamie’s story serves as a reminder of the power of kindness and being there for each other as we continue to focus on our goal of nurturing 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 gave her a safe place as a teenager.
“I’d hug her and just say, ‘Thank you for being the reason I exist now, not knowing what you did and just feeding someone because you’re a good person,'” West said. “To be honest, I don’t even have the words for it.”
This article was originally published on TODAY.com