Easterseals’ Debbie Smith: ‘Don’t tell me no; tell me how.’

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Debbie Smith’s motto is: “Don’t tell me no; tell me how.” This bold attitude has brought her to develop innovative programs that elevate Cincinnati youth out of poverty. We met her at Easterseals Serving Greater Cincinnati in Walnut Hills and sat down in a conference room, where she shared her story with us. She weaved advice into her stories, thoroughly demonstrating her desire to help others in any way possible. We moved to the bright area of the lobby, filled with artwork by people with disabilities, to take photos. Even while taking pictures, Debbie continued to talk about the amazing work that Easterseals does for individuals in the community. Her energy and enthusiasm never faded. She is very passionate about her work and justifiably proud of her organization.

Interview by Tracy P. Van Wagner. Photography by Angie Lipscomb.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series spotlighting a few of the incredible ladies of Easterseals. Check out “Easterseals’ Danielle Gentry-Barth: An Awesome Struggle” here.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

I am 53 years old. I'm a native of Dayton, Ohio. I grew up in Dayton and I’m a University of Dayton grad. I'm the youngest of four. My mother and sister both have multiple sclerosis and my brother has a traumatic brain injury. So, working with individuals with disabilities and advocating for them is a part of my life. That's kind of a core passion because of my family and my upbringing.

You can take care of yourself, but then your work also takes care of you. I think that part where work also takes care of you is often missing.

I’ve been a single mom since my son was about 4. I'm very proud of my son. Now he's a young father. I have a 5-year-old granddaughter. It's been a really good journey! I’ve been here at Easterseals now for 27 years. I find this to be probably one of my greatest accomplishments. I don't usually do anything for more than three years at a time.

Can you tell us a little bit about Easterseals?

We started as a small nonprofit in Cheviot. We were founded by a group of parents that were wanting an alternative for their adult children with disabilities once they graduated from high school. That was back in the ’70s. At that time, individuals with disabilities were living at home because they didn’t have any other option. So, our work focused on opportunities around work and then we built from there. We became an Easterseals affiliate around 15 years ago. A little over five years ago, we combined with Jewish Vocational Service. That enabled us to kind of change our footprint in the community, but we have really stayed focused on work. We work with individuals with disabilities, veterans, youth, and individuals that are trying to get themselves out of poverty.


Our services are focused on anything related to individuals that may need that extra help getting out of the position that they're in so that work can be a key part of their life. As we know, as adults, the first thing people ask you is, “What do you do?” It defines you. Work is what you give back and what feeds you. So, often, it's about trying to help people find that passion and that connection. I always feel so bad for people that say to me, “I hate my job.” I have been truly blessed with 27 years of really loving getting up and coming to work every day. I think that's the driver: to find an opportunity for folks. You can take care of yourself, but then your work also takes care of you. I think that part where work also takes care of you is often missing.

So you first started out as a caseworker. Would you mind telling us a little bit about that?

Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, we were transitioning individuals with severe mental health problems who had been hospitalized back into the community. So I was working a lot with a mental health agency and helping people make that transition. We were trying to figure out what their services would be in the community. It was very challenging; it was 24/7. Your pager was going off constantly. That was a lot for a recently graduated individual. I did that for about three years and then I found this position in Cincinnati at what was called “Work and Rehabilitation Centers of Greater Cincinnati.” I was a case manager working with individuals with severe mental health problems and intellectual disabilities. I also worked with individuals that were deaf. There were some individuals who had been hospitalized for a very long period of time and were transitioning out of institutions. There were some days I went home and I cried, saying, “What have I done? What am I doing?” But I started to realize that no matter what the individual was able to express verbally, they always had something to communicate. They were communicating through their body language and through their behavior. They were trying to share with you something in the best way that they knew how. I really started to focus on that and thinking about how we all communicate our needs through different ways. That was really a great learning experience for me.

When we came over to the Walnut Hills area, there was a teacher at Cincinnati Public Schools [CPS] that was looking for options for students with disabilities. We created several programs with CPS working with students transitioning. Our instructors began going into CPS and then the traditional classroom instructors were saying, “Can your instructor come and teach my kids?” I realized that what we were teaching was a great general curriculum. That kind of built into us doing some additional youth services.

I always have this motto: “Don't tell me no; tell me how.” There's always a way.

Right around the year 2000, we started looking at full services for youth. We were doing summer employment. That's when I started working around more of the workforce investment; “Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act” is what it is now. For the last 18 years, I’ve pretty much been focusing on helping our young adults figure out what they want to do. It's really exciting work. There's a lot of focus on individuals between the ages of 18 to 24. We've got to help them figure this out because they’re going to help us meet our workforce needs.

The other partner in all of this is the workforce. My job is to help create a pipeline so that we're addressing this workforce need with this group of individuals that we know have the talent to do it; they just don't know they have it. I think that's a pretty cool job: to help people find their passion and discover things about themselves.

Would you mind sharing a story about something you've worked on that's particularly special to you?

I actually would have to say it's our youth services in general. When the “Workforce Investment Act” was passed, we were only working with youth with disabilities in transition. So, this grant comes out and it was through the city of Cincinnati. I told my boss at the time, “I'm going to apply for this.” It was the first grant I ever wrote on my own. It was pretty big! I remember sitting at my kitchen counter and having everything laid out. That's probably when I started my really intense night owl work. I would come home and get my son to bed. We'd fall asleep together, then I would get up and go back to work. That's been a pattern of mine for a long time. I researched and I wrote that grant. We got it! It started a whole new opportunity for the agency and also a new opportunity for me. It was a different way to look at employment. Employers were always a partner in what we were doing. But this really made me look at the employment needs in our community and, “How we can help make this connection?” And I don't know that I really embraced that as much before as I did the individual's needs.

Several years later we applied for YouthBuild, which is a Department of Labor grant. It's a three year grant cycle. We work with at risk youth that have dropped out of school: The traditional school system does not work for them. Many of them have been involved in the courts and many of them have children. Many of them have lots of challenges and have no support system whatsoever. They're couch surfers; they just go from friend's house to friend's house. We teach them construction skills. They work on rehabbing a house in their community. Some of them don't remain in construction, but that's not always the point. The point is for them to believe in themselves. Also, what I believe in is stacking credentials. That's where you start with one success, which could be as simple as a first aid CPR. Then they go on and they get another credential. So, it's getting them to understand that: “I can learn something, and then my learning can apply.” Then you build on that, because we all need to be lifelong learners.


I think that's kind of my thing. I always have this motto: “Don't tell me no; tell me how.” There's always a way. I think what I learned from that was: Don't limit yourself. When someone says, “They won’t like that,” my response is, “How do you know they won’t like that?” The other thing that it showed me is that we have to have a palette. I like to call it our toolbox. We've got to have a big toolbox and you've got to have all kinds of different tools and different methods. You've got to then figure out how to apply them. You know that not one way works for everybody. I think that's kind of the hard thing because you can't just do it one way, but that's also the fun thing.

I like the good stuff. When you're moving the needle, even if it's just a little bit, it's worth celebrating. And we need to celebrate more. There's so much bad stuff and negativity about how things aren’t going well. So, we need to focus on the positive. Our youth right now are working on a house in Evanston. In YouthBuild, it's not just the transformation of the house from being a worn down house into a newly renovated house; it's the transformation of youth. We take pictures of them at the beginning of the program, then we take the picture of the group when they graduate, and it's pretty cool. There are some physical transformations when they start to believe in themselves and they start to feel empowered. So that's exciting.

So you said several times that you've been really lucky to find a job that's also your passion. How do you think you were able to accomplish that?

I know that it is a part of me to give back. That's just who I am. If I wasn't doing the work that I'm doing here, then I'd be doing it somewhere else. I've just been blessed that the people here like me and let me do what I like to do. The opportunity for success for me is because of that “don't tell me no; tell me how” attitude. I do like to look at new things and listen to people. My way isn't always the right way. The other thing that is really key to me is that I try to teach others to never judge, because there is a fine line between where you start right now and where you could be.

[Tearing up.] Just looking at my mom, my sister, and my brother… Jim and I are exactly one year and two weeks apart. So we’re very close. He was extremely smart. He had a double major at Case Western Reserve University. He was president of his fraternity. They had just had Sinbad, the comedian, do a benefit. I can’t remember. They also had national fraternity folks there. They had driven the national fraternity folks to the airport and they were driving back to campus. Then a drunk driver entered the highway on an off ramp and hit them head on. Jim had nowhere to go. I was at UD at the time and I'll never forget getting the phone call. My aunt loaned us a car, and my family drove to the hospital. We prayed the whole way up. We didn’t have cell phones then, so we had to stop every now and then and call the hospital to see how he was doing. He basically had a left frontal lobotomy, and that was life-changing. You know your best buddy, your brother one day…

The day that we got that phone call, I got a letter from him. He went to a U2 concert. Mail back then took a while. He wrote on the outside, “This letter saw U2,” because he took it with him. I had wanted to go, but couldn’t. So that was the only way I got to go: I went to a U2 concert through a letter.

He had to learn to walk, to talk; he had to learn everything again. He was in a coma for about eight days. So, these are just little things that kind of make you who you are. There was a nurse that was leaving the hospital. Her shift was over. She heard the call come in about the accident and heard how bad it was. She was like, “I'm going to get on the chopper. There's three young boys.”

If she hadn’t been on that helicopter, my brother wouldn't be alive, because what she was able to do, paramedics back then couldn't. She was able to start relieving the pressure off his brain en route. She didn't have to do that; she could’ve gone home. Just knowing that one decision you make can have an impact on somebody's life forever… I think that's kind of something that I live with. I'm not in the medical profession. But one thing that I do can have an impact. If a kid comes back and/or I see them out in the community, they’ll say things like, “Miss Debbie, thanks so much.” And that means a lot.

I also read that you do a lot of work for the autism community in Cincinnati.

It's a passion. So, I was sharing with you how individuals learn differently and about being a lifelong learner. And I mentioned how we communicate through behavior and how we communicate in different ways. The autism spectrum is really of interest to me, because at that point you really start to use all that. I’m very close to individuals that have Asperger's; they have extremely high intelligence, but have very poor social skills. I've taken a few courses to learn more. I've always loved the study of the brain and the body and how it all relates.

I try to teach others to never judge, because there is a fine line between where you start right now and where you could be.

It's your learning style, too. Again, all of these things kind of build on where I’m at. My son was in private school and he had a severely autistic classmate. I didn't make him befriend him, but it happened anyway. Then I got to know the mom, and she would ask if Zach could come over and spend time with her son so that he would have somebody that would be patient and play video games with him. So, we built a friendship and an understanding there. Talking with her, it was like, “Wow, if the learning environment could be different for her son, maybe the result in behavior would be different.” If we can have a better understanding of individuals on the spectrum, then we can also have a better understanding of each of us, because each of us have these different ways of learning.

Understanding these things has helped me understand more about how to help people in general. There's so much we can learn from people on the spectrum. As they say, “If you've heard one person's story about autism, you've heard one person's story about autism.” This is also true about everyone: If you've heard one person's story, you've heard one person's story. No story is right or wrong because it's your story.

Can you please tell us about an influential woman in your life?

There have honestly been so many! It's going to sound kind of hokey, but truly a woman that has changed my life has been my grandmother. My grandma came to Dayton from Minnesota with her brother. She met my grandfather, a little Irishman who, at that time, was a widow. He had eight children and, at that time, men were not allowed to raise their children on their own. The children were put in orphanages. My grandma was much younger than my grandfather. She married him. Her whole focus was to buy a house and get all his kids back. She devoted her life to those children that weren't her own for the man that she loved; she gave so much to those children. The whole family always came together on Sundays; her faith was so strong. She was the most loving and beautiful woman.

That's my mom, too. My mom always challenged me. Irish women are strong. I have this little quote that sits on my desk: “I'm not afraid of you. I was raised by an Irish mother.” There is little fear that you have when you have an Irish mother. She had so much strength in getting us through what happened with my brother. I wanted to quit school and devote my life to my brother's recovery. I did it behind their back. It just so happened that one of the deans at the University of Dayton went to our church, so my parents called them, and made me get enrolled back in school. I'm thankful that they did. My mom devoted herself to Jim's recovery. He’s had an injury that didn't go away. He still lives with them as an adult. He has very limited ability to speak. However, Jimmy can sing. He sings in a barbershop quartet, but it's hard for him to speak and formulate sentences and his social skills are awkward.


I've had great leadership here. Lisa FitzGibbon, the previous president here. Margaret Morone was our vice president. She passed away in 2005. She was very strong and very opinionated. She probably said some things that I didn't like, but I think that those who had the biggest influence are people that have challenged me: “Put your boots on and get in there. Quit whining about it because it's not going to get you anywhere.”

I'm so blessed with some strong women in my life. I think the other reason I’ve done well here is because we’re pretty much a women-led organization. I believe in giving back to strong women and growing our women leadership. We have to support each other and not judge each other and tear each other down. I think that's something that is just inherent in this organization. We work with many young mothers who are trying to get out of poverty. It's a pleasure to help them become strong women. We know that women really can be the strong backbone; we make change happen. I think we all need to celebrate that a little bit more. We need to allow ourselves to be different.

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