Elizabeth Smith uses her early struggles to help families and children build resilience
By Laura Hagar Rush, Townsy Media, March 2, 2021
Sebastopol’s current ‘Local Who Makes a Difference’ honoree is a community service powerhouse, but the road she took to get here was long and hard.
A recent transplant to Sebastopol, Elizabeth Smith has thrown herself into serving the Sebastopol community, especially its children, in so many ways it’s hard to count – all the while, trying to establish a career and raising two children together with her husband Teran, a Sonoma County native.
An author, public speaker and advocate for suicide awareness and the prevention of child abuse and neglect, Smith is the founder of Project Whole Child, a program to build strong, healthy, emotionally connected children, families and communities and to help prevent, treat and heal trauma.
Smith is also on the board of Peacetown. She serves on the Sebastopol Union Elementary School District Board of Trustees and is a parent leader for Parent Voices Sonoma, a grassroots group that advocates for affordable, accessible, quality childcare. Smith has recently accepted a volunteer position as the Community Manager for Sonoma County ACEs Connection.
She also re-started and expanded a local chapter of Soroptimist International and serves as its chapter president.
You may not have met Smith yet, but you probably recognize her projects. Peacetown Family Village? That was her idea. The pink flamingos in front of the fire station? That was her doing. The snow flake hunt this winter for local families? Her again. The free Peace Bag project bags for children this summer – yep, Smith at work. And now she’s looking ahead at how to do a second annual socially distanced Easter egg hunt for local children.
Despite her cheerful demeanor and her roll-up-your-sleeves approach to community service, life hasn’t always been sunshine and daisies for Smith, who is open about her own struggles.
Smith was born in Oklahoma, but her family moved frequently when she was growing up — to San Diego to Yuba City to Florida and back to Yuba City. She grew up in an extremely strict Pentacostalist religious community (she calls it “a cult”) that required daily church attendance (twice on Sunday).
“I had to wear long skirts past my knee, sleeves past my elbow, necklines couldn’t be any lower than two fingers below my clavicle. I couldn’t cut my hair, no television, no jewelry, no makeup, no worldly music,” she said. “We had to speak in tongues.”
In her twenties, Smith began studying to be a nurse, but after working in a hospital in various positions, she realized that nursing just wasn’t her calling. Smith said trying to be an advocate for both patients and staff at the hospital took a mental and physical toll. She began having panic attacks. Though she reached out for help, Smith found herself in such a dark place that at the age of 29 she attempted to take her own life.
“That was eight years ago, this September,” Smith said.
The work she does today with parents and children is based on the work she did rebuilding her own life while recovering from the trauma of her suicide attempt.
Like many people suffering from anxiety, Smith was put on multiple medications by her doctor, but then she discovered yoga and, after her first class, decided that this ancient form of physical and spiritual exercise offered a better path to healing for her than Western medicine.
“I ended up getting certified to teach yoga and then I got certified to teach children’s yoga and then became a trainer,” she said. “I was working with a lot of school districts and providers in Yuba City, teaching them about the benefits of yoga and how it can support a child’s education and provide resiliency for parents.”
“From there, I started hearing more about ACES (adverse childhood experiences) and doing work with therapists that kept bringing up my childhood, and I realized like, ‘Whoa, I have a lot of trauma from my childhood that I thought was just normal,’” she said.
“So I started really leaning toward using children’s yoga and yoga as a way to help buffer toxic stress and prevent ACES and prevent child abuse, and that has led to the work I’m doing now, though now yoga is just one of the tools I use.”
Soroptimists to the rescue
One of the things Smith did on her road to healing was to work with a mental health group on the issue of suicide prevention, which is how she ended up giving a talk to a Soroptimist group in Yuba City.
Smith knew of the Soroptimists by their reputation.
“I was involved in the Active 20-30 Club and a couple of other organizations in my hometown, and I remember hearing about the Soroptimists. They were the women in the community who did good. And they were also the most successful women in our community.”
After Smith spoke for 50 minutes about her experiences as a struggling single mom and her road back from her suicide attempt, the women in the club asked her to become a member.
“I had never publicly spoken about my story like that,” she said. “They said ‘We want you to join our club,’ and I was just bawling. I was like ‘Oh my god I would love to, but I can’t afford to.’ I could barely afford to put food on the table and was having to go to the food bank and such, just to make ends meet. And so they paid for me to be a part of their club for a whole entire year. And in that time they mentored me and they guided me and they lifted me up … it was phenomenal.”
“Along the way, I found that there were commonalities. Yes, these women were successful and amazing, but they were also human, and they had stories and struggles of their own. So I joined Soroptimist and then I got to be a part of helping other women. It’s what allowed me to flip the switch.”
Several years later, when Smith and her husband and two children moved to Sebastopol, she was disappointed to learn there wasn’t a Soroptimist Club in town.
She discovered that there had been a club that folded in the 1990s and knew she had to bring it back. She and a friend founded Soroptimist International of West Sonoma County in August of 2019. Smith served as the chapter’s founding president and is its current president.
She said she enjoyed learning about prior club projects such as baking crisps for fundraisers during the Apple Blossom Festival and building a gazebo in Ragle Park displaying plaques of members who had passed away. The current club is revamping the gazebo, and members who have since passed will have their plaque placed into the gazebo as well.
Smith is especially excited about the Soroptimists’ current signature program, Live Your Dream, which offers scholarships to women heads of household (with dependents) who are attending school to further their education. The club will award their second scholarship to a local woman in 2021.
At peace with being a powerhouse
Smith enjoys being social and bringing people together, listening and dancing to live music, eating all the delicious fresh produce grown locally, savoring the wonderful wine this county provides, being outside in nature—especially at the beach—and sharing community service with her children so they know the value in investing in their communities.
Where does she get all her energy?
“It’s a blessing and a curse, right? I feel uneasy when I’m not doing something,” she said. “I’m not the type of person to just sit at home in front of a television. I like to be out and about. I have a lot of creative thoughts, and I like to move forward with them and see what sticks. I guess that I would say I have an entrepreneurial brain: I’m just constantly thinking of creative things to do, and sometimes that keeps me up at night.”
She’s thrilled to have landed in a community like Sebastopol where her particular brand of creative energy is welcomed and celebrated.
“Luckily this community has just embraced my very creative funky brain.”
Smith gets a kick out of seeing herself on the banners around downtown. (From Elizabeth Smith’s Facebook)