“After my mom died, we got a lot of support from people lending help or money,” says Dunn, shown with a Homes for the Holidays family. “The work is figuring out how to manage your life long-term.” Photos courtesy Warrick Dunn Charities

Giving Back: Warrick Dunn Charities

Before making a name for himself playing college football at Florida State, and before his 12-season career as a running back for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons, Warrick Dunn was an average teenager attending Catholic High in Baton Rouge. But in January 1993, just a couple of days after his 18th birthday, his life changed forever when his mother, police officer Betty Smothers, was killed by armed robbers. Dunn’s status went from student to head of household overnight. 

Moved by the experience of raising his five younger siblings with the help of his grandmother, Dunn decided in 1997 to found Warrick Dunn Charities through its flagship program, Homes for the Holidays, in order to provide for other families what his mother had always dreamed of accomplishing: homeownership. 

The program, which is on track to serve its 200th family in early 2022, provides support to single-parent families in Baton Rouge and beyond who are working to support themselves. In its nearly 25 years of operation, Dunn has personally surprised families with home furnishings, lawnmowers, cleaning supplies, fully stocked pantries and other items a young family might need to feel comfortable in a new space—including help with the home’s down payment. The homes themselves often come to fruition via a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, but handing over the keys is just the beginning. 

“Warrick’s vision is to stay with each family for 10 years,” says LaMonte Jones, who has been with the charity since 2007 and is now president of the Warrick Dunn Charities board. “We want to provide them with a financial literacy class. We want to teach them how to eat healthy. And when their kids are ready to go to college—because many of them are only seven or eight years old at the start—we want to be able to provide them a scholarship. Warrick wanted to make sure we offered a complete set of wraparound services, even bringing in experts who can provide guidance on questions about investments, or job hunting, or college applications. We want to be a one-stop shop for any services a family—and especially the kids—might need as they move forward.” 

These services come by way of Dunn’s Count on Your Future program, which hosts free workshops on investment accounts, debt recovery plans and other money management resources; SCULPT, which offers workshops on how to stay physically active and make healthy food choices on a budget; and Hearts for Community Service Scholarships, which distribute $5,000 in awards among students who actively volunteer in their communities in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana, the Warrick Dunn Charities flagship states. 

The Homes for the Holidays program provides a fresh start for single-parent families by lifting the burden of down payments, furnishings, food and more.

Until 2015, the charity also operated a Baton Rouge-specific Betty’s Hope Children Bereavement pilot program, which helped children learn to manage the emotions that come with the death, divorce, incarceration or deployment of a parent or family member—help that Dunn says he wish he had received much earlier in the midst of his own trauma, even while on the upward trajectory of a successful career. A revived version of that program will launch in January 2022. 

“One of the biggest things I learned in sports is the importance of teamwork. You can’t do it alone,” he says. “But I also learned how to sacrifice. When preparing defenses, you have to be able to forecast what the opposing team is going to run. You have to anticipate the future. It’s the same with programs like Homes for the Holidays. What will lead to a better life and better opportunities down the road? Our charity can provide access to these programs and this education, but we all have to do our own part to prosper.”

To absorb countless tackles on the football field is one type of strength, but to show up again and again to achieve your mother’s unfulfilled dream, reliving the hardest day of your life each time you deliver a smile to a family in need? That’s fortitude.

“We’ve all had some sort of trauma that we need help figuring out,” says Dunn. “I know what these families are going through, and that’s why it’s so important for us to stay with them through the journey, especially for the kids. I can still do more. But you’ve got to start somewhere.”

Jones says he looks forward to more big announcements from the organization next year in the aftermath of an era that has reminded us so thoroughly of the importance of home and family. 

“Warrick is very committed to the city of Baton Rouge,” Jones says. “He’s excited to invest back in the city that was so good to his family growing up. I would definitely classify him as a true hometown hero.”