The world is in reach with a human touch

Juel Shannon Smith stood in a one-room home in Skopje, Macedonia, marveling at the family's pride and gratitude.

Smith, a former University of South Florida administrator who serves on Habitat for Humanity's international board, traveled to Macedonia earlier this month on the invitation from that country's Habitat for Humanity organization. Officials in the Eastern European nation eagerly showed off the house, where a couple lived with their two children and two parents.

A one-room home may not sound all that impressive, but consider this: They were building the house one room at a time.

"It had taken them a year to build the living room," said Smith, who holds a doctorate in psychology from USF. "They wanted us to see how proud and excited they were. It was very wonderful, very nice. They brought in different foods and were so excited that the board was there."

The needs of the international community and the gratitude of its citizens is part of what fuels Smith's drive.

You might expect her to just relax after retiring from a distinguished career at USF in which she founded three important institutions — the Women In Leadership and Philanthropy, the Institute on Black Life and the Center for Africa and the Diaspora.

Smith, however, remains active not only with Habitat, but also with the Links Inc., an organization of high-achieving African-American women. She serves as the national director of International Trends and Services and is a United Nations representative for the group.

She has helped spearhead the Links' efforts to build more than 60 schools in South African and Nigerian villages, and recently took a contingent to a United Nations meeting in New York.

"The saying is if you want something done, give it to a busy person," Smith said. "I still have a lot of work to do."

The contact Smith had with many of USF's international students, including those from Africa, heightens her sensitivity toward the world community and spurred her interest in Habitat.

Helping the less fortunate in other nations — she also has traveled to Africa, the Caribbean and New Zealand — raises the appreciation she has for her life here with husband John, a retired USF College of Fine Arts dean and former Fisk University president.

"It really lets us know how blessed we are," Smith said.

Although Smith has started this new chapter with zeal, she remains proud of her USF work, including bringing life to Women In Leadership.

The group not only connected community leaders such as Judy Genshaft, Linda Simmons, Carol Morsani and Elaine Shimberg, but it also provided programs for the group's membership.

It also gained access to speakers such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Maya Angelou, Valerie Plame Wilson and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

It raised more than $1.5-million over two years, provided scholarships to several female students and allowed Smith to share lessons about leadership.

"My motivational thought is to always remember that the little oak tree became a mighty oak tree because she held her ground," Smith said.

For Smith, philanthropy is as much about giving of yourself as it is writing a check. It's a philosophy we should not only admire, but embrace.

That's all I'm saying.

The world is in reach with a human touch 11/28/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 2, 2008 6:10pm]

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