Ricky Smith stands in a darkened restaurant surrounded by Cajun decor and luxurious table settings. A small crowd of about 30 friends, acquaintances and strangers mills about. They are here, young and old, because of him, attracted by the entertainer's jokes as much as his gregarious online persona. But on this morning, with light snow whipping past the windows of Jezebels Bayou, they aren't here for comedy.
The group is making bagged lunches for the homeless, assembling bread, meat, mustard and mayo into culinary shields against the onslaught of the November frost. Most know each other from previous gatherings, but some are newcomers. Smith greets the unfamiliar with a cheesy icebreaker straight from summer camp, but delivered with absolute sincerity: "Tell us something embarrassing about yourself," he prompts.
After a little mild-mannered teasing to dispel the awkwardness of first meetings, they too gather around the long table, putting chips, sandwiches, cookies and bottled water into paper bags. One group, huddled in a corner, writes encouraging notes to accompany the lunches. Over the course of the day, they will split up to distribute the 150 bagged lunches throughout the city.
With lunches packed, a group gathers to follow Smith downtown. It's time for Random Acts of Kindness Everywhere.
For Smith, the founder of R.A.K.E., making lunches is about kindness, not just simple charity. Being a genuine person makes R.A.K.E. work, he says. "I'm not saying be holier-than-thou, I'm not saying walk on water, just do something."
Less an organization and more a movement, R.A.K.E. encourages people to simply go out of the way and do something nice for someone else. Through his Twitter feeds @rickonia and @rakenow, Smith is spreading the gospel of goodness. With more than 22,900 combined followers, his feeds are littered with folks buying coffee and fast food for strangers, turning normal people into vigilantes of kindness.
A comedian of the digital age, Smith got his start on Twitter, yucking it up online and drawing blocks from the likes of President Barack Obama and Dan Gilbert before he was approached by Comedy Central execs. He made it to LA, and ended up writing for Adult Swim's Black Dynamite. But he quickly got sick of the California life. To kill the boredom, he decided to hitchhike cross-country. He was amazed when strangers, connected by social media, came out of the woodwork to give him food and money. One man even lent him a Camaro ZL1.
After seeing what people did for him, Smith realized he was on to something. "The R.A.K.E. aspect is physically seeing the effect. Somebody's house burns down. We can't buy them a new house, but we can at least buy them new clothes. It's the trickle-down effect of Well, I can help out my neighbor," he says.
R.A.K.E. is gaining momentum. With the founding of the R.A.K.E. Fund, Smith is able to finance a nationwide blanket drive and assemble homeless kits — a collection of vital products such as toothpaste and hand warmers, worth $20, for those less fortunate. In the past few months, he's raked leaves and dressed up as a superhero to cheer up children at the Cleveland Clinic. His acts are impromptu, born of spontaneity and mostly organized instantly via Twitter and Facebook.
Cloistered by the surrounding warehouses, the Men's Shelter on Lakeside Avenue is overflowing. Men cram into the entrance hallway away from the biting cold, waiting to go through a metal detector. Smith makes his way inside. The lunches are gone in a minute. He stops to take some pictures, making faces and telling jokes. On the way out, Smith asks a staff member how many people are normally here. The staffer gestures to the maximum occupancy sign: 375.
"That's how many we'll bring next month," he says.