"The passion of helping people – I love it,” says outreach worker Sandra Smith, who worked tirelessly to help Brenda Lee Jones learn her real name
After two kind strangers stepped up, a Jane Doe who had been living in a Louisiana shelter for three months finally knows her real name and where she is from.
In October, Sandra Smith, a community service coordinator, made her usual rounds to churches that help the homeless and the needy. One day, she noticed a woman who was past her temporary three-week stay at the shelter at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Baton Rouge.
About two days later, Smith approached the woman outside the shelter. “I saw her by the ditch near I-10 on East Boulevard,” says Smith, who sits next to the woman while sharing their experience with PEOPLE. “I said, ‘What’s your name?’ She said, ‘Silent.’ I said, ‘Silent? Well, you're going to talk now. You got to say a word.’"
Smith brought the woman back to St. Agnes’ shelter and convinced staff to let the woman stay there again. “I asked Sister Rose, ‘Can you please help me? Don't never let this woman leave until I get her some help,’” Smith recalls saying.
Because the woman didn’t know her name, Smith recalls, she used other people’s names. Then one of the monikers she used, Brenda Lee Jones, turned out to actually be her name.
She also told Smith that she might have been from Little Rock, Arkansas, New Orleans or Jackson, Mississippi.
One thing she did know for sure was that she has a daughter named Regina in Mississippi and that she previously worked at Tyson Foods.
In addition to making sure the woman had a safe place to stay, Smith sought out the public's help to identify the woman, including by sharing her story with ABC affiliate WBRZ. And after hearing about the story from friends and coworkers, genetic genealogist Shayna Landry decided to get involved.
Landry checked out the report, which offered several helpful leads.
“I started looking in Little Rock,” she tells PEOPLE. “Then she mentioned that she worked in Pine Bluff. I looked at the proximity of Little Rock and Pine Bluff, and I was like, ‘Okay, it's kind of close. But if I lived in Little Rock, I don't think I would travel to Pine Bluff to work.’ So she's probably from Pine Bluff."
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In addition to using Ancestry.com, Landry came across the woman’s old yearbook photos, which yielded "a lot of information."
Landry then contacted Smith, who was able to provide her with additional information about the Jane Doe that was not mentioned in the initial news report.
“She says her mom's name is this, her brother's name is this,” Landry recalls being told by Smith. “And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. I'm looking at her mom's obituary right now.’ And so I was able to find everyone based on that.”
The genealogist eventually found the woman’s niece on Facebook and messaged her.
“Her niece called me from work that night,” Landry remembers. “At first she was a little skeptical: ‘What? Are you sure? What color was her hair?’ And I was like, ‘I'll do one better. I have a photo.' So I took some screenshots and I tagged her in the WBRZ article. And she was like, ‘Oh my God, that is my favorite Aunt Brenda. I haven't seen her in a long time.'”
Landry was able to confirm that the woman’s name actually is Brenda Lee Jones and that she's from Star City, Arkansas. Jones’ family also confirmed to Landry that Jones has a daughter named Regina,
“It seems like the family is originally from Star City, but ended up settling in Pine Bluff, which is where the chicken factory is located,” Landry tells PEOPLE. “I did not confirm that she worked there, but I would assume that is a true statement based on everything else being true."
Although the mystery of her identity was solved, there are still some details that remain unknown.
"We have no idea how she ended up in Baton Rouge," says Landry. "I know she was in Pine Bluff in 2020, but no one can confirm her whereabouts after that. Based on her bank account having no activity for several years, I believe she probably left around the time her mother passed away.”
Now that Jones' identity has been established, Smith can finally help the former Jane Doe obtain necessary services such as housing. Both Smith and Landry are also hoping they'll be able to reunite Jones with her family soon. Already, Smith said that Jones and her daughter have spoken on the phone and that other members of the woman's family have come forward.
After hearing the news about her identity, Jones acknowledges it was a great feeling. “I was excited,” she tells PEOPLE.
The experience was also gratifying for Smith, who has developed a rapport and friendship with Jones. “The passion of helping people – I love it,” she says. “I do it for people because they don't know it. Everybody’s got a story."
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