Lifestyle Food Couple Marries at White Castle After Bride Says the Restaurant Helped Her Survive as a Homeless Kid After spending years in abusive foster homes, Jamie West ran away at age 12 to escape. Homeless until 17, she found support— and a safe space at White Castle: "I never once got turned away" By Emily Strohm Published on May 6, 2023 08:17 AM Share Tweet Pin Email Trending Videos Photo: Laura Segall When Jamie West got engaged to her boyfriend of 15 years, Drew Schmitt, in 2019, she knew that she wanted to have their wedding at a place close to her heart: White Castle. Workers at the fast food chain welcomed West into the restaurant for years while she was homeless as a teenager. "I only exist today through the love and kindness of strangers who have helped me out along the way," West tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview. Put in foster care at age 4, West was in and out of 94 different homes in just eight years. She claims she endured sexual and physical abuse at many of the homes. "It was a terrifying experience," she says. "Just a series of really harmful placements for a little girl to be in." Laura Segall When West was 12, she made a decision: "I realized that I wasn't going to survive the system, unless I took off on my own." She climbed out the bathroom window of her foster home and spent the next five years homeless, wandering around the country. "I would go very long periods of time without eating," she says. One day, while alone and starving, she stumbled upon a White Castle. "For an underage homeless kid, having any kind of safe space is life changing," says West. "The first time I walked into a White Castle, the woman behind the counter goes, 'You poor thing.' She handed me a fresh cup of water, a stack of sliders and let me use the bathroom. I got to clean my face and wash my hands." Laura Segall From that point on, "every single time I saw a White Castle, I ran," she says. "Most of the time, if you were dirty and obviously homeless, you weren't welcome, no matter how old you were. White Castle was the only place that no matter where I was, if I saw it, I knew it was safe. I knew they'd feed me. I knew they'd have water. I knew I could use the bathroom. I never once got turned away." West is forever grateful for the kindness and compassion she experienced from the employees at White Castle. In 2019, when the fast food chain opened up a new location near her home in Scottsdale, Ariz., West and Schmitt camped out in the parking lot to be the restaurant's very first customers. The following year later they were inducted into the Cravers Hall of Fame, an exclusive club that the company created in 2001 to recognize its most dedicated fans. While on stage, Schmitt asked West to marry him. Laura Segall "I was up there telling everyone, 'I am the product of every homeless child you've fed in your stores, and I wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for you guys being the altruistic company that you are,'" she recalls. "I turned around and Drew's on one knee proposing. I still can't talk about it without crying. It's incredible." On May 5, the couple exchanged vows in front of 150 guests in a medieval-themed ceremony at White Castle in Scottsdale. West wore a dress fit for a queen while Schmitt opted for a kilt and armor with White Castle's phrase, "I crave therefore I am," stamped in gold Latin. Before she walked down the aisle to Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" performed by the Goddesses of Bagpipes, West's two nieces, who were her flower girls, tossed dehydrated onion chips in lieu of florals. "Technically an onion is a flower and it's the White Castle main ingredient for sliders!" she says. Laura Segall For Schmitt, marrying his best friend is a true honor. "I know [she's] my partner. I know that we're meant to be together. It's like the old saying, When you find the right one, you'll know," he says. West says she hopes her story can help kids just like her. Laura Segall "When I was in really, really, really bad spots, it was hard to wake up the next day and have any hope of a future, or think you'll ever get out," she says. "If I could spare one kid that and just make one kid know... that you will survive, no matter how bad the home is, you can get out. You can survive it, and you can do anything. You can turn yourself into a queen." If you suspect child abuse, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453, or go to www.childhelp.org. All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.