Most people know Shaka Smart as one of the hottest coaches in college basketball, a boot-camp-style motivator who turned the VCU men’s basketball team into a March Madness favorite in the Atlantic 10 Conference. He’s injected spirit and pride into the student body, along the way earning such fans as Hollywood director Spike Lee.
But off the court, Smart has set a pace for community service alongside his wife, Maya Payne Smart, both exceptional students from Kenyon College and Harvard University, respectively. Together they’ve embraced their new city since moving here more than five years ago.
Coach Smart says one of his favorite times of the year is Christmas, when he takes players to Target. The store donates 50 $100 gift cards for children in need through a program called Shop with the Rams.
“I think it strikes a chord with our players because some of them see themselves in these kids who might not get the opportunity to go Christmas shopping for family, siblings or themselves,” he says.
A former freelance writer and business journalist, Maya serves as program chairwoman on the board of the YWCA of Richmond, where she works to make one of the group’s missions to eliminate racism more prominent.
“Richmond’s on the rise in terms of arts, entertainment, dining and neighborhood revitalization,” she says. “But that momentum is merely cosmetic until we do the hard work of ensuring that educational and economic opportunity are distributed widely and equitably to our entire community.”
With the YWCA, she helped launch and coordinate the Greater Richmond Regional Hotline, which connects people navigating domestic violence and sexual assault with vital services — a partnership among five local agencies.
An in-demand speaker, she also volunteers with the Community Foundation’s grant distribution committee, which entails site visits to numerous nonprofits to evaluate their applications for funding. She credits her parents with inspiring her community endeavors.
Together, the Smarts have tackled fundraising for the Friends Association for Children, a nonprofit that works to build literacy and developmental skills for youth in need. “As the parents of a 3-year-old,” Maya says, “we see every day how pivotal the early years are in setting children up for lifelong success.”
With a mix of T-shirt sales and working their connections for personal and corporate donations, the Smarts have raised more than $100,000 toward their campaign.
“Quality, affordable child care providers like Friends and the YWCA are doing our community a huge service,” Maya says. “We need to support them and find creative, collaborative ways to make early childhood education attainable for all families, regardless of income.”
As for the coach, he’s busy preparing for the basketball season ahead and working with new recruits such as freshman guard Jonathan Williams from Richmond. “He’s explosive,” Smart says. “I think he’ll be a fan favorite.”
With the university and the city so interconnected, it’s easy to see how the pride can overlap. “It’s a small enough community where things like a college sports team really, really matter,” Smart says. “Something about sports builds a sense of pride.”