Maya Angelou said “When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” These are words that Cormany Community Change Maker Mary Smersh lives by, and a way of life she models, embraces and shares with her four daughters, friends, colleagues and everyone she encounters along her journey. “I don’t think it would be any kind of a life to just go to work, come home, sleep and start over,” says Mary. “It’s my duty and my privilege to have the ability to give back.”
Mary spent 16 years volunteering with her daughters in the National Charity League (NCL), a mother/daughter philanthropic organization that brings mothers and daughters together to focus on projects that foster community service, leadership development and cultural experiences. She wanted to spend quality time with her kids, while introducing them to the joy, empowerment and responsibility of giving back. “The reason I started doing community service with my kids is that we do live in an area where kids have a lot of support from their families and community.” I wanted them to be able to see that, sadly, that’s not how most of the world is.” Through the NCL, Mary’s girls were able to step outside of their own comfortable routines, and see the need in the world.
A New Chapter
Giving every kid the opportunity to choose his/her path, and the confidence to believe they can is a passion for Mary. “That’s where we’re going to change the world,” she says. “It’s through the kids… we need to get through to the kids.” That’s why, after her youngest daughter graduated in 2016, marking the end of her time with the NCL, Mary revisited Invest in Youth. Invest in Youth is an NCL organization that had intrigued Mary when her girls were younger, but the time commitment didn’t work
with her family’s busy schedules. Invest in Youth pair tutors and role models with third, fourth and fifth graders in need of extra support, mentoring and tutoring in the Seattle Public Schools. The organization’s mission is One Hour + One Child + One Day a Week = A Lifetime of Dividends. “I love that they are at an age where they still have their whole lives ahead of them,” explains Mary. “You just hope that you’re able to make a positive impact and instill a little something extra. I think about what changes are needed in the world… it needs to start with the kids.”
Mary speaks passionately about the kids she’s been able to mentor, including a fifth grader whose family was homeless. He had just come mid-year to one of Seattle’s Invest in Youth schools. The organization didn’t have an available tutor so they asked Mary to sub. “As soon as I met him, I knew I was going to do it,” she recalls. “We worked on multiplication tables. He didn’t know his twos… in fifth grade. It just hits you,” she recalls. Mary says some students are from other countries, and their parents don’t’ speak any English, making it hard for them to help with homework.
“Some of these kids just don’t have the support that other kids have… that my kids have,” says Mary. “Just to have someone show up once a week… somebody that’s not their teacher, they’re not being paid, it’s not their mom or grandma. It’s this total stranger who comes just for you for one hour every single week. The same person. It’s almost more important than the homework help,” says Mary, who is now in her third year with Invest in Youth.
In addition to spending two days a week with her students, Mary participates in enrichment programs and sits on the board for Invest in Youth. Her 24-year-old daughter, who works at a preschool daycare, subs for Mary if she is ever unavailable to meet with her students. She wants to ensure her students always see a familiar face on their one day.
Holding the Door
Mary’s “do good” heart and spirit also made her a perfect fit for Rodan + Fields’ Change Maker trip. In 2018, Mary joined many of her R+F colleagues to work with buildOn students in Oakland, which turned out to be another defining moment in her life. “That was probably one of my best experiences ever,” says Mary. “I’ve traveled all over the world, but that trip to Oakland was amazing!” Mary talked about meeting a Cambodian
boy who came to the U.S. with his parents and grandparents. They all lived in two rooms. He explained that, during his freshman year, he was just waiting to get out of high school so he could go into the family business – drugs and gangs. But he had one teacher who asked him every day, “How are you doing today?” He said his teacher saw something in him, and would only leave him alone if he promised to make a visit to the buildOn office and learn about the program. He agreed, and that teacher and that visit changed his life. He didn’t go into the family business. This year he will start his freshman year at UCLA.
Mary’s experiences with Invest in Youth, NCL and buildOn only fueled her passion for helping others. She remembers a speaker at a Youth Event she visited with the Invest in Youth Board describing “giving back” as a way of holding the door for the guy behind you. Somebody holds the door open for you, you go through, you hold the door for the guy behind you. You don’t want to be the guy that slams the door and stops that chain. “I don’t think I’m just doing it for myself and my kids,” explains Mary. “The kids who are benefiting from these programs are hopefully thinking to themselves… ‘You know, somebody is holding the door for me, now I’m going to turn around and hold the door for the guy behind me.’ So we’re teaching this generation to hold the door open for the next generation.”
Giving When You Get
Mary’s sister, Kathleen Mazure, believes kindness is simply a part of who Mary is. “Mary can do anything and she does it well. She is unselfish in making sure that others are taken care of,” says Kathleen. “Today she brought along some socks to give to the homeless camps. All of it – the soup kitchen, tutoring and helping take care of our mother is done without expectation of notice, and without expectation of any compensation or praise.” For Mary, spending quality time with her daughters to hold the door for the next generation is all the compensation she needs. Mary’s mother volunteered a lot when she was a kid, and taught her the importance of teaching when you learn, and giving when you get. “My parents always said it’s easy to give a little bit off the top. When you realize you have to make a sacrifice – money or time… that’s where it’s important. And that’s a good thing.”