LAUREL – Many of the patrons of the Valencia Motel and Efficiencies in North Laurel are not in as good of shape as the motel, and that’s not saying much. Paint on the sign is crumbling away, the stairways seem unsafe to climb two at a time, and blue tarp completely drapes a room that […]
LAUREL – Many of the patrons of the Valencia Motel and Efficiencies in North Laurel are not in as good of shape as the motel, and that’s not saying much.
Paint on the sign is crumbling away, the stairways seem unsafe to climb two at a time, and blue tarp completely drapes a room that seems to be under construction for repairs. Or maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
This motel has certainly seen better days, as have most of the people staying there.
As Laurel City Councilwoman Valerie Nicholas gets out of her car and gathers several Styrofoam trays full of food, she hears a familiar voice.
“Hi, Ms. Valerie Nicholas,” a man calls out from one of the first floor rooms.
“Hello Cosmo. I brought some food for you,” Nicholas responds.
Cosmo walks over to Nicholas. His smell is overpowering from over eight feet away, but Nicholas doesn’t flinch. Cosmo has wiry gray hair and is wearing sweat pants, a heavy flannel jacket, and black and purple Nikes. The seams of his Nikes are splitting and his feet are bursting out. He probably hasn’t changed his clothes in at least a month. Cosmo stands about eight inches from Nicholas while they chat briefly about the food she has for him.
“Goodbye, Ms. Valerie Nicholas,” Cosmo says as he trots back to his motel room with food in hand.
It’s a motel room to some, but to Cosmo this is his home. He suffers from some form of mental illness, and once a month his brother stops by the Valencia to pay his rent.
Cosmo’s not the only one. Upstairs a woman lives with her adult daughter and son who are paralyzed. They have been in the motel for two months while they try and save money for a deposit on a new apartment. Nicholas has brought a plate of food for them as well. Today it’s two types of chicken, barbeque and lemon herb, meatballs, veggies and Nicholas’ signature potato salad.
After she visits all her regulars, Nicholas asks Hotel Manager Grace Johnson if there is anyone else who needs food because she brought extra. Johnson points her in the direction of another room where some new folks have recently moved in. Nicholas knocks on the door, and when a man answers, Nicholas explains how she brings food to some of the people that are living at the Valencia and offers him some of her extra food, which he gladly accepts.
A woman approaches Nicholas and asks if there is anything she can do for them to help them get back on their feet. Nicholas offers to call people at the county to make sure they are on the right Medicaid plan, if they are on food stamps, or if they need to be on disability. Her time on the city council has helped her figure out the most efficient ways to get people the help they needed.
In June 2011, Nicholas became the first African-American woman appointed to the Laurel City Council, and then the first to be elected to the council in November that year.
Nicholas is a native of Virginia, born and raised in Roanoke. She moved to D.C. in 1986 after suffering years of physical and sexual abuse from friends of her father. But abuse followed her north, and in 1995, she suffered a miscarriage after repeated physical assaults by her then-boyfriend.
“I was going through domestic violence and working for a United States senator. Going to work with black eyes. Going to a makeup artist. I used to keep a foundation compact in my purse so I could touch up my eyes. I would accompany him to hearings with black eyes and bruises,” Nicholas said. “My life experiences have given me the compassion to deal with people.”
It’s that compassion that leads her to cook meals for people who can’t afford them every day with money out of her own pocket. That, and what people decide to donate to her.
Joan Broadway said she read an article about Nicholas donating meals to those less fortunate in January and the two have been best friends since. Broadway doesn’t do any cooking, but hunts for bargains and clips coupons to help Nicholas continue to serve meals daily. Broadway shares Nicholas’ passion for helping those who are down on their luck.
“When you become homeless it is as if you become invisible. People don’t want to make eye contact with you. People don’t want to interact with you. So to have someone reaching out and checking on you every day is just huge,” Broadway said.
After she wraps things up at the Valencia, Nicholas heads to the Garden Inn off Route 198 in Laurel. There, Nicholas waits for Frances Edmonds, who has been living in a one-room hotel with two beds that she shares with her husband, sister-in-law and three children for the past three months. Edmonds met Nicholas the day before her daughter’s birthday and explained her situation. The next day Nicholas showed up with food, a cake and balloons.
“From that day on I just feel blessed to even know her,” Edmonds said.
Before she met Nicholas, Edmonds admitted her family was struggling so badly that she needed to steal food from different stores around the area just to feed her daughters. Nicholas helped get her husband a job as a stocker at the local Dollar Tree where he works graveyard shifts. They are trying to save money to afford an apartment.
After the Garden Inn, Nicholas runs out of food, but knows she has a few more plates left that she can make at home. She hurries back, fills up and runs back out to feed more hungry people. She will be back at it the next morning, and the next one after that.
For her, taking care of her community is a year-round job.