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A Lesson in Life

Connie Smith's life has taken many twists and unexpected turns, especially after leaving her full-time job as an elementary school teacher to stay home with her youngest child.

"My son was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome and, at the time, he needed constant support," said the 30-year veteran teacher and mother of three from Palos Verdes. "It was the best decision for our family."

As Smith's son's condition improved five years ago, and there was a little bit more free time in her day, she knew she wanted to give back to the community.

"While volunteering at my son's school, I came across a pamphlet about Harbor Interfaith Services in San Pedro, where they had a preschool. Since I had taught a little preschool in college, I thought I could occasionally help the children of the homeless families staying at their shelter. Little did I know then how much this would change my life and the life of my entire family."

Smith now serves as the lead preschool teacher at Harbor Interfaith, where she says she works about 25 hours a week as a non-paid staff member, by choice.

"These are the kind of teachers that children will remember for the rest of their lives."

"I get a lot of credit for that, but I feel lucky that my husband and I are in a position where I don't have to take a pay check," Smith said. "Plus, it's more rewarding because I don't get paid. When I'm there, it's because I really want to be there."

Smith said one of the things that drew her most to volunteering with the children and families at Harbor Interfaith is that only those parents who are committed to climb out of poverty and stick with the stringent program are allowed to stay. Yet, she admits that working with homeless families gave her much pause at first.

"I was worried, as I didn't know what these kids would be like, and how would they be different than other kids," Smith explained. "But in my experience, they're not different at all. A 4-year-old is a 4-year-old and they're gifted and talented and very accepting. If you're sleeping in a car, like many of these children are, that's life, but then they're thrilled when they get to sleep in a bunk bed at our shelter. They just want to be with their parents. There's so much potential in each child I work with and giving these families the right circumstances - and the children the experience of preschool - is giving them the tools they need for lifelong success."

Smith's hard work and exceptional teaching in the classroom earned her the high honor of being deemed one of six Preschool Teachers of the Year for 2014 by Los Angeles Universal Preschool, or LAUP. The award honors preschool teachers from Los Angeles who have gone above and beyond to provide the best possible learning environments and classroom experiences for preschool children. The recognition includes a $2,000 cash stipend through the Elizabeth Lowe/Bob Weekley Award for Excellence in Preschool Teaching, plus $500 in classroom supplies.

In addition to Smith, the 2014 Preschool Teachers of the Year include:

  • Rowena Magalad of New Montessori School in La Puente
  • Reshon Moutra of LAUP's Moffett State Preschool in Lennox
  • Revital Soffer of Adat Ari El Early Childhood Center in Valley Village
  • Debra Watts of Long Beach City College Child Development Center and Learning Lab in Long Beach
  • Kana Brubaker-Gomez of LAUP's La Petite Academy in Lancaster

"These are the kind of teachers that children will remember for the rest of their lives," said Celia C. Ayala, CEO of LAUP. "Teaching is a special calling, and LAUP is excited to be able to recognize the preschool teachers who represent the best in Los Angeles County."

Smith said it's wonderful how life can surprise you, because the life that she now leads, working with preschoolers at Harbor Interfaith, has made her days more purposeful.

"My whole family has become involved in this organization, and we're working together to contribute to something very important and raise an awareness about how much poverty is right next to us," Smith said. "Being part of this has opened our hearts and minds to the reality of what life is like for so many people, and I'm grateful for life being unpredictable and going into directions that I may not have chosen myself. This guided me toward where I was supposed to be."

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