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A&E >  Food

A burger chain fed a homeless teen. Years later, she got married there.

May 24, 2023 Updated Wed., May 24, 2023 at 2:09 p.m.

By Cathy Free Washington Post

Jamie West’s wedding day at a fast-food hamburger restaurant in Arizona earlier this month was a celebration she said she couldn’t have imagined when she was growing up.

In the 1990s as a homeless teen, West said, she didn’t dare to think beyond “getting through just one more day.”

She said she found hope, though, in an unlikely place, when an employee at a White Castle restaurant handed her several bags of free hamburger sliders after she asked for a glass of water.

“After that, whenever I was hungry, I knew where to go,” recalled West, now 41. “Every White Castle I went to treated me the same way. I’d come out from washing in their restroom and I’d find a big bag of sliders waiting for me.”

“It was a kindness I’ll never forget,” she said.

About 25 years later, when she became engaged to Drew Schmitt, West said she knew exactly where she wanted their wedding: a White Castle that had recently opened in Scottsdale, about 20 miles from where they live.

“We’ve eaten here at least twice a month since they opened,” West said of the 2019 opening, adding that White Castle allowed them to use the restaurant for their wedding at no charge.

On May 5, she and Schmitt said their “I do’s” at a medieval-theme ceremony that included stacks of sliders for 150 guests, a giant burger-shaped cake and flower girls who threw dehydrated onions instead of flower petals.

West wore a bright-blue and gold ball gown with a full skirt, and Schmitt suited up in a kilt topped with custom-made leather armor. To continue with their royalty theme, the couple wore crowns as a tattoo artist put the finishing links on the Celtic ring tattoos they’d chosen instead of traditional wedding rings.

“We’re so thankful that we found each other and have become each other’s partners and best friends,” said Schmitt, 57, who runs a roofing company with West.

“Jamie has been through a lot of tough challenges in her life, so it’s wonderful that she’s now in this happy place,” he said.

West said she grew up in Arizona and was put into the state’s foster-care system when she was 4 because her parents struggled and could not care for her.

“Over eight years, I was in and out of 94 foster homes - some of them were really abusive and neglectful,” she said. “When I was 12-and-a-half, I finally climbed out a bathroom window to run away, and I got good at hiding.”

She said that she formerly lived with other teens at a homeless camp near Arizona State University in Tempe, then hitchhiked to Southern California and lived in beach communities with counterculture members of the Rainbow Family.

“When I got tired of that, I started hitchhiking all over the country,” West said. “It was pretty rough - I was abusing alcohol and drugs and I was truly on my own.”

She was 16 when, she said, she walked into a White Castle restaurant for a glass of water one day in one of the many nameless towns she’d wandered through. She does not remember exactly where she was, she said, but she believes she was in Kentucky or Tennessee.

“This woman working there said, ‘Oh, Sugar, you poor thing - go get yourself cleaned up in the bathroom,’” she recalled. “I went in there and cried, then washed up. When I came out, there were these big sacks filled with slider hamburgers waiting for me.”

“The lady told me they were cleaning the grill and were going to throw everything away and she wanted me to have them,” she added. “I remember sobbing, then hugging her and grabbing the food and running away.”

“I wasn’t sure whether it was real,” West explained.

She said that scenario happened repeatedly at various White Castles across the country, no matter how rough-looking she was when she walked in.

“I was always so grateful to them for treating me like a human being,” West said. “It was a shiny spot at a very bad time.”

When she was 17, West said, an aunt in Arizona took her in for a year and she was able to stop abusing illegal substances and begin to live a more stable life.

“She helped me to leave that street mentality I’d been locked into,” said West, noting that she eventually found a job as a kennel technician at an animal shelter and was able to move out and find a place of her own.

There were no White Castles in Arizona at the time, but when she traveled to states that had the burger chain, she would make it a point to stop by, and was happy to pay for her food now that she could afford it.

Although her mother died five years ago, West said, she was recently able to reconnect with her father and is hoping to repair their relationship.

“Drew is the one who inspired me to do that,” she said of her husband.

She said it took years to put her painful past behind her, but she finally found love and acceptance after meeting Schmitt near Scottsdale in 2006.

“We were both dating other people who were football fans, and we were all together at a bar one day watching a game,” West recalled. “After our relationships broke up in 2007, Drew and I started dating.”

When White Castle opened its first location in Arizona in 2019, they camped in the parking lot to be the first in line to go inside, and they have since become regulars.

In March 2020, Schmitt asked West to marry him after they were both inducted into White Castle’s Cravers Hall of Fame at the burger chain’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, during a gathering for the company’s biggest slider fans. West decided to publicly tell the audience about her difficult past and her history with the restaurant chain.

“Jamie was onstage telling her story, and when she turned around, I was on one knee with a sword, asking her to marry me,” he said. “It was pretty epic.”

The coronavirus pandemic caused them to delay their wedding plans, but the wait was worth it, West said.

As she walked up the aisle to the music of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” “I thought about all of the strangers who helped to feed me and got me to this moment,” she said of her wedding.

“I want other girls out there who are going through what I went through to know that it’s going to get better, and they can find hope,” West added. “I was able to break free of the pain and be happy, and they can too.”

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