“Sanielle Lashaye Jones,” echoed across the Savannah Convention Center at Georgia Southern’s (GS) graduation ceremony this past May.

The 28-year-old walked across the stage to accept her diploma with four years of hard work and suffering now behind her.

Sanielle Jones and Paula Hall take a selfie at the ceremony. Photo courtesy of Jones.

Cheering her on in the crowd was Bulloch County resident and difference-maker Paula Hall. Paula initially met Sanielle while working at the Second Harvest food bank in Savannah. Sanielle was starving and severely dehydrated when they first met.

“There’s a million people like her that come in looking for help… but she was just one that, I don’t know, I couldn’t get her out of my head,” said Hall. “My kids were her age.”

A journey of hope

Four years ago, Sanielle Jones packed up herself and her cat Michael to start school at South University in Savannah. She began the journey filled with hope for a better future. On the way there, she crashed and totaled her car leaving her with no way to go.

“I was leaving from a traumatic situation at home and then I got into another traumatic situation,” said Sanielle. 

Jones takes a mirror selfie with her cat Michael.

Homeless and alone

After arriving in Savannah having successfully smuggled her cat on the Greyhound bus, she stayed with someone she met on a couch surfing website. After the place turned out to be not-so-pet-friendly, she decided to move to a homeless shelter since South University didn’t offer housing.

“The hardest decision for me was when I placed [my cat Michael] at a veterinarian office that offered lodging,” said Jones. “Whenever I had my paycheck, I always just paid for his lodging and I would go stay at the homeless shelter so he would have somewhere to stay.”

A friend she met at South University heard about her situation and offered some help until Jones found a new apartment.

Choosing rent over food

“[The apartment] was really, really crummy, but I didn’t care,” said Jones. “I just wanted to have a place to stay at that point because I wanted to be by my cat again.”

All the while she continued to pursue her degree in psychology, working for $500 a month and sacrificing her health to do it. Jones said she would go days without eating. 

“When I was there, I was so malnourished but also couldn’t stay hydrated,” said Jones. “I was going through a lot.”

Food Bank visit saved her life

In 2018 a friend at South University gave her a list of food banks near her apartment and a bus pass that she used to go to Second Harvest where she met Paula Hall.

“Paula has been my friend since day one,” said Sanielle. “She was one of those first few people that I’ve met that really helped me get onto my feet here in Savannah because when I first met her, I had literally nothing. When I say literally nothing, like, I didn’t have food. I was out for like weeks.”

Seeing the poor state of her health when she walked in, Hall and other food bank workers pushed for Jones to go to the hospital.

“At first I was very unwilling to go because I didn’t have any type of health insurance or any kind of money to be going to the hospital and stuff like that ,” said Jones. “I was more worried about the hospital bills than actually passing out which is kind of messed up.”

Eventually, she gave in to their wishes and went to the hospital where she got fluids and started feeling better. Second Harvest sent her food and supplies, and Jones and Hall started keeping in touch. 

It began with food

“It all started with food,” said Hall. “I know there’s a lot of people like her… but she went on and did something that a lot of people are stopped by. She didn’t let it hinder her.”

From there, Hall convinced her to transfer to Georgia Southern’s Armstrong campus for the enrollment benefits and housing, even paying her application fees. 

Jones and Hall take a selfie while working together at the food bank. Photo courtesy of Jones.

“She’s been like a fairy godmother to me, actually,” said Jones. “She didn’t have to give me food. She could have turned me away… She could have, you know, not paid for my college application. She could have not done a lot of things, but she did them anyway.”

GS Trio program

With Hall’s help, Jones was enrolled in GSU’s TRIO program that helps first-generation or low-income students, and she made a community with the people there.

“She was a perfect candidate,” said Hall.

“TRIO definitely helped me get my first scholarship,” said Jones. “They helped me definitely get situated when it came down to resources and needing academic assistance.”

Returning to volunteer

“She’s never come back to the food bank for food,” said Hall. “She’s come back to volunteer which we thought was incredible.”

“I thought it was my way to pay it back… for helping me,” said Sanielle. “I don’t have the money to pay her back, but hopefully one day I will. She doesn’t really care for money, but I feel like I should pay her.”

Food Banks make a difference

Yearly, Second Harvest distributes 17,787,438 meals to people struggling with hunger, according to Feeding America’s website. One in 6 children and one in 7 people face hunger.

Second Harvest is one of the Georgia Food Banks. They now have a partnership with Feed the Boro in Statesboro.

Paula Hall, continues her fight for hunger in our community as a board member of Feed the Boro.