During its 105th commencement ceremony, Polk State College will award its Distinguished Alumnus Award to Rita Sue Smith, a 1974 graduate who now heads the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
Smith, 57, grew up in Winter Haven, the youngest of six children. Her father, Vernon Smith Sr., had an eighth-grade education and worked as a military cook. Later, he owned Sonny’s Café, which catered to day laborers, and worked as a cook at Winter Haven Hospital. Her mother, Sarah, operated an in-home daycare for many years.
Soon after graduating from Winter Haven High School in 1972, Smith realized that a college degree was the key to a good-paying job. She enrolled at what was then Polk Community College, located just a few blocks from her home, becoming the first in her family to go to college.
Two years later, she earned her Associate in Arts degree in psychology.
“I came away from that educational experience believing I could accomplish what I wanted, and that the foundation I had built there was valuable,” Smith said of her time at the College. “When I moved on to two other college systems, my credits all transferred; I never had to take any classes over again. That told me that the learning I had received at (Polk State) rose up to a high bar, and I was served well by the time I spent there.”
From Polk State, Smith went on to briefly study at Mars Hill College in Mars Hill, N.C., but finished her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Michigan State University in 1976.
After graduation, she headed to Colorado, where she went to work in a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children. Though she enjoyed the work, her curiosity was piqued when she noticed a newspaper advertisement for a counseling position.
She had some experience as a counselor, and decided to apply. During the job interview, she learned the position was at a battered women’s shelter – and just like that, she became aware of domestic violence, an issue she had never heard of previously.
Her college courses never addressed domestic violence, so she learned everything on the job. Soon, however, she realized that many of the children she had previously worked with at the residential treatment center were acting out because they had experienced family violence. She also learned that problems arise when people do not feel safe in their homes, and how important it is to make homes safe for children.
The biggest shock, she said, was realizing that domestic violence could happen to anyone.
“It can and does happen to anyone, and to lots more people than most of us realize,” she said. “It was a very newly defined social problem when I began working in the field in 1981. It had not been identified as a crime or social ill until the very late 1970s. Before that, as Gloria Steinem said once, for women it was just called life.”
She briefly returned to Florida to work in the film industry, but still dedicated time to the domestic violence cause, volunteering for Peace River Center in Lakeland and serving on the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence board of directors. .
In 1992, she returned to Colorado and was hired as conference coordinator for the NCADV.
A few months later, the executive director was fired. Smith and another staff member remained, and together they rebuilt the organization.
Today, NCADV is a national nonprofit that works at a grassroots level to end domestic violence. Its national board consists of advocates who work in the field every day, keeping the organization focused on its mission.
In her role as executive director, Smith builds corporate partnerships and secures donations. She is also often called on to speak about domestic violence, especially when the issue is thrust into the national spotlight by celebrities – such as cases involving O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson, Mel Gibson, Rihanna and Charlie Sheen. In her role as commentator, she has appeared on national news broadcasts and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
Smith is also tapped by politicians for her knowledge about domestic violence and her passion to end it. She was present in the Oval Office in 2010 when President Barack Obama signed the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act. She has also met several times with Vice President Joe Biden and visited the White House during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
For all the success she’s known, Smith said it still the personal impact her work has on domestic violence victims that is her motivation. Her greatest accomplishment, she said, was “when a woman in a shelter I worked in told me I saved her life.”
Her connection to Polk County endures, and she one day hopes to create a shelter for domestic violence survivors in Winter Haven.
“Anyone can be abused,” she said. “No one ever has a right to hurt someone they say they love, and we all have a role in ending violence in the family.”
Polk State’s 105th Commencement will be tonight, Dec. 15, at 6:30 p.m. at the Health Center on the Winter Haven campus.