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Associate professor of social work

University of South Florida

As a social worker, Aaron Smith tried his best to heal families torn apart by drug abuse and domestic violence. He also worked with terminally ill children and helped their families prepare for death.

The work was grim, but Smith managed to find some light amid the gloom.

"I've learned more and more how important life is and that all life forms have to be sustained," he said.

For the past seven years, Smith has been schooling students at the University of South Florida on the ups and downs of social work as a career. It's no easy task considering that it is often a thankless job with little pay.

But in the classroom, Smith prefers to focus on the ideas that have kept him in the field for 33 years: every individual has value, and families must be sustained.

"Social work has that ethic that we value every human being and that we don't judge them," said Smith, an associate professor, who also runs the graduate program in social work at USF.

It is that mindset that prompted the 58-year-old Orlando native to reach out to a group of grandmothers struggling to raise their grandchildren because their daughters are unwilling or unable to do so. Many of these women are elderly, survive on a limited income and have severe health problems.

With Smith's encouragement, the women formed a support group in Tampa, Grandmothers United, and meet regularly to laugh, cry and boost each other's spirits.

Smith has studied them closely for the past five years, attending dozens of group meetings and counseling the women one-on-one. In the beginning, the women were scared to open up. Now they are sisters and are gearing up to demand more public assistance to raise their grandchildren.

The women also have been grist for Smith's mill. He has featured them in five research papers and has plans for several more.


For Smith, working with these women has been one of the most profound experiences of his life. They have taught him about the elasticity of the human spirit. They are the glue that holds the generations together, Smith said.

"Society believes that women are the primary caregivers," he said. "Many of these women feel that this is their destiny."

But they have plenty of worries. They fear they will die before their grandchildren are old enough to take care of themselves. They worry that they don't have enough time to pass along cultural traditions to the children or tend to their emotional needs.

"One of their concerns is that if they don't help these children gain a sense of self, that they may become ensnarled in the same problems as their parents," Smith said.

Smith also has learned that many of the women have been forced to face the lack of emotional nurturing in their own lives.

"One night these ladies said, "Smith, we're not used to men being nice to us,' " he said. "That was such a profound statement."

Grandparents taking care of their grandchildren is part of a new family dynamic that needs to be recognized by society, Smith said. That means giving grandmothers the same kind of financial assistance that foster parents get.

"We're always searching for heroes, for entertainers and sports heroes, but it's these people who are doing those sacrificial things each day," Smith said. "We have found nothing to replace their love and caregiving."

Lately Smith worries about welfare reform and what he calls the "leaner, meaner demeanor" of lawmakers in Washington. Welfare cuts will force social workers and poor families to do more with less.

"Welfare reform cannot be overnight," Smith said. "This process has to be a studied process, and we can't sit on the sidelines and observe the process."


Growing up in Orlando, Smith dreamed of becoming a doctor and following in the footsteps of several uncles. He abandoned that pursuit and found himself working as a social worker and helping neglected children in Washington.

He also was a clinical social worker at Stanford University Medical Center in California, where he worked with terminally ill children and families of premature infants. He spent 20 years at Stanford before switching coasts and coming to USF in 1988.

Smith has a master's degree in social work from Howard University and a master's degree in public health from the University of California at Berkeley. He received his doctorate degree in medical sociology from the University of California at San Francisco.

While on campus, Smith has shared his love of reading with students and encouraged them to get together and talk about books.

He also was in the news by becoming swept up in a reverse discrimination suit filed by a colleague, Cleora Roberts, who was hired at the same time as Smith. Roberts cried foul after USF hired Smith at a higher rank and salary level. She said Smith was hired because USF was trying to recruit more black professors. She won her suit in 1993.

Smith said he plans to stay at USF until he retires. And true to his social worker roots, he will no doubt continue to help to keep families together.

"I've grown as a person having had these kinds of contacts and having seen the human spirit not allow itself to be vanquished."