Organization is key!
Create shared tools for your team or board to use for products, services, accounting, photos, passwords, banking, and more.
At any time, you may be asked for facts on your nonprofit. Having your information organized, and accessible from your devices, is key. How many toys have we donated? How many states/countries have we donated to? You need to be able to answer questions on the spot with confidence.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tracy Smith.
Tracy Smith is the proud President of the non-profit, Smith Smiles Toy Donations, and Head of School at Xceed Preparatory Academy in Coral Springs, Florida. She has spent the past two decades transforming young minds as an educator and administrator in both brick and mortar and online platforms while running her family’s non-profit for a decade. Smith Smiles Toy Donations has won awards at both the state and county level for outstanding philanthropic service for donating 13,000 new toys to children’s hospitals both domestically and internationally (to date). In her spare time, she enjoys competitive running, volunteering in her synagogue, and spending time with her family and friends.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I was born and raised in Miami, Florida with an amazing family surrounding me. My parents and older brother were a constant support system, as well as having extended family including both sets of grandparents, aunts, and uncles at each of my school or synagogue events. I was raised to understand how fortunate I was and recognize that love and compassion should extend past our family to everyone you encountered. I remember watching both my parents as I grew up treating everyone we came in contact with respect, and as an equal. My parents were always the first to help a neighbor or colleague, which instilled the value to support those around me.
You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
Being in the hospital can be a scary experience! As a child who may not fully understand the extend of what is going on, it can make the situation worse. My family created Smith Smiles Toy Donations (www.smithsmiles.org ) to help children have toys, crafts, puzzles, and other items to spend their time focusing on during their hospital stay. It also helps the whole family have something to do together to relieve stress. Through our nonprofit, we are showing children they can make a difference in this world! My three kids, Zakary (14), Gracyn (12), and Ari (10), are able to articulate to children their ages how to organize toy donation collections and make a change with their impacts in another child’s life. Watching kids organize themselves to impact their community is an amazing sight and bringing toys to a child in the hospital, bringing smiles to their faces, is heart-melting!
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
My daughter had spinal surgery when she was 2 years old, and I was eight months pregnant with our third child. We had an energetic four-and-a-half-year-old (Zakary) to keep up with, and our world was turned upside down. We did not know what to expect for our daughter’s future and we had another child on the way. My husband, Jarrett, and I could not have gotten through this scary time without the support of my family and our friends. As Zakary visited his little sister in the hospital through multiple hospital stays, he noticed that many of the toys in the hospitals were, “well loved” with broken or missing pieces. A little more than a year later, Gracyn was in the hospital again and Zakary’s birthday approached. He asked us if he could give his birthday gifts to the hospital. We created a plan with Zakary and the hospital. Over the next few years, we did this with all three of our kids and began hosting donation collections at schools and camps where people tried to give us money. We could not accept cash leading to our decision to officially become a nonprofit in 2016. We do not know how many thousands of items we collected before becoming a nonprofit, but we have donated to 20 states and 2 countries 13,000 new items since 2016.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Knowing as parents the emotions, loneliness, and fear of being in the hospital with your child, it drives me. Jarrett and I know that at any moment, we can be back in the hospital with our daughter, and it never, ever gets easier. Signing forms, watching your child once full of energy laying in a hospital bed a shell of their usual self, no words can fully describe the feelings we go through. When my little boy in kindergarten looked at me and said he wanted to give his birthday gifts to the hospital, I knew he was feeling it too and it was his way of processing his emotions. I knew we had to do something, and our mission grew and grew over the years. Since I was a teen, I have been involved in community service volunteering in local causes. As a family, we try to do things together as well. Organizing our own collections and then creating a nonprofit is a completely different level of involvement! I’m so proud of how we have been able to grow our vision and help bring smiles to so many children in the hospital.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Thank goodness for the kindness of others! We found our way by explaining what our dreams were and pulling resources from friends and acquaintances to guide us on tasks such as creating a logo, website, and all the “little” things you need to brand yourself that I had no background in. I talked to others in our social circle and got the names of who they knew and trusted to hire for the legal help of launching a nonprofit to ensure we were set up correctly. It was a puzzle that we received guidance putting together from those around us until we were able to officially launch a nonprofit!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Talking with other parents when I’m at physical, occupational, and aquatic therapies with my daughter is always helpful to hear about the latest things that can help her and build a support system for us moms! While talking with another parent at physical therapy a couple of years ago, a Mom said she recognized us and could not place where. We tried to talk through the schools and groups we might have in common but came up blank. A few weeks later, our family was sharing an upcoming pizza night fundraiser for Smith Smiles Toy Donations and it clicked! We had donated toys to her son when he was hospitalized, and she recognized our family from our visit to her son’s hospital room and toy donation.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
Although it wasn’t when we first started, we did learn to send detailed maps and directions to hospitals even if the location was well known for a donation. I was collaborating for a donation with a dear friend of ours who organized a collection at the school she was the Head of School at, Xceed Preparatory Academy in Kendall. We try to donate in the same community the toys were collected if possible and decided to donate to a Miami hospital. On the day of the delivery, we were texting back and forth about the garage to park in and were waiting and waiting and waiting for them to arrive with the amazing donations from Xceed. They could not find the “blue garage” we parked in even with the detailed texts. We finally realized they were at a different children’s hospital six miles away! Since Smith Smiles had donated to both previously, I contacted the child life specialist and quickly arranged a donation where the other family was and we donated to both locations on the same day, splitting the donation with the Xceed donation at one hospital and Smith Smiles items at the other. After learning more about what an incredible, giving school Xceed Preparatory Academy is, six months later, I became the Head of School of the Coral Springs school location! I knew I wanted to be involved with a company that put community involvement as a priority and was excited that they had an amazing educational model as well. I’m thrilled that I can continue my administrative career and be with such a wonderful, growing company.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I have had the pleasure of having support from so many in our community. When we first started, we were collecting donations at our children’s birthday parties and schools/camps. My husband, Jarrett, was talking with a co-worker about our growth. He suggested we become a non-profit so we could do even more and begin to fundraise. We brainstormed and began the process. As we grew, we had many cheerleaders from family, friends, and neighbors. Creating relationships with local camps and businesses has led to more growth and connections for us to draw from allowing us to help more children’s hospitals. For example, Yale David, the owner of Brighthouse Day Camp, hosts collections yearly for us, which then connects us to all of his campers and their families making them aware of what we do. It helps us help others the more visibility there is for Smith Smiles Toy Donations so we can reach more hospitals in need.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
During one of our donations, we delivered toys to a middle school boy who was feeling a bit down about being hospitalized. We received a message from his Mom through our social media account detailing how it raised his spirits and asking how she could help. After we messaged a few times, we were connected with the Samaritan 365 Club in his middle school and were able to arrange a time for my three children to speak with the community service organizations in school (Student Government, National Junior Honor Society, and Samaritan 365) where we presented how kids can make a difference, how we started as a nonprofit, and arranged a toy collection drive in honor of the student. They have collected for Smith Smiles Toy Donations for 2 years now and joined us to donate to the same hospital we met their student at to deliver their collections!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Children’s hospitals have an incredible amount on their shoulders. They need to balance funding, sanitation, and programming among other things. Many people think about donating toys around holidays, but the need is year-round to help children healing in the hospital. Funding for replacing toys, crafts, etc. or items to therapeutic playrooms is constant with children in and out of the hospital all the time. Some items are one-time use, others are used repeatedly which leads to sanitation since the patients are healing from surgery, illness, or are terminal. The child life specialists do not have the support to manage the sanitation if they do have the items to provide children or run their programs. To keep the children and families engaged and in good spirits is imperative to the healing process, which is why programming is important. Child life specialists need support from the community for programs such as music, entertainment, and more.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Organization is key!
- Create shared tools for your team or board to use for products, services, accounting, photos, passwords, banking, and more.
- At any time, you may be asked for facts on your nonprofit. Having your information organized, and accessible from your devices, is key. How many toys have we donated? How many states/countries have we donated to? You need to be able to answer questions on the spot with confidence.
2. Document, document, document!
- Although you may have a great memory, as time goes by, the details will blur together. Each interaction is special, but as you grow, so will the amount of information you need to keep straight.
- Documenting clearly what happened when, and how much, will allow you to speak articulately to your impact.
- You will also be able to reference the information to create social media posts, complete tax forms, and see your growth over time to know you are going in the right direction.
- It is okay to ask for help! Training your board members or those around you to do tasks will allow you to run more efficiently in the end so you can attend to more pressing matters.
- Have local teens assist with tasks for community service hours. You will be showing them they can help make a difference and they will feel involved in your charity even brining more people to support you.
4. Don’t be shy…
- To grow your non-profit, put yourself out there! Don’t be shy about inviting people to join your fundraising events through social media or asking for their support and sponsorships. If you don’t ask, you won’t know if they are interested.
- Many people would love to help and find a great cause to believe in. By marketing yourself and your charity, you are showing confidence-people will support and believe in you!
5. Take photos, videos, and post, post, post!
- It is better to take the picture or video to have in your library then to wish you had it later.
- Having pictures and video at every event and step of the way is important to show your history and growth.
- Always document through photos and video and share later illustrating your impact and gathering more support for your cause.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
One person makes a ripple in the world, the more we join together, the bigger the wave. Jump in, make a wave, you can do it! Kids can make a difference and a family who does social action and community service together can get so much joy out of the time they spend organizing, collaborating, and seeing the impact they have had together. Find what makes you happy, or a cause that you find important. Start small and try to do a little more each time you participate watching your impact grow.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Michelle Obama! Her impact in our country and world has been incredible from her healthy eating initiatives to community service and volunteerism programs, I would be honored to meet Mrs. Obama and hear her insights to creating successful programs inspiring young people in so many ways. I appreciate her ‘lead by example’ attitude including doing push-ups in challenges on shows to promote healthy habits.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Young Social Impact Heroes: Why and How Tracy Smith of ‘Smith Smiles Toy Donations’ Decided To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.