Today’s guest is a mother that learned to turn shame, grief and fear into purpose, passion and empowerment. She talks about how her life as a childhood abuse survivor and mother of a son who was not allowed back into the US because of his mental disability inspired her to become an advocate for people with disabilities within the non-profit world.
Please welcome Linda Smith
Podcast Episode Transcripts:
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Author speaker and nonprofit consultant. Linda Smith is recognized as a fundraising icon within the Las Vegas community and across the globe. And it all started when she was inspired by her eldest son Smith was led to establish the Christopher Smith foundation in her son’s name. And this will also open up the discussion about her first book, unwanted.
Okay, Linda, thanks for jumping on. Thank you for having me, you know, you, you have, um, an interesting story and I have some overlaps that I’ll bring to the discussion too, on my wife’s side of things and, and her family. Um, but I don’t think I can do justice to explaining, you know, the whole situation of. Uh, raising your son and, and then just the different paths that, that open.
So I’m going to give you a minute to kind of explain your background to our listeners. Sure. Um, born in England, um, raised in, in Canada and, uh, actually for a while I was homeless in Canada. So we kind of had a rough beginning, taught myself how to dance to became a, a Canadian dancer on a national television show and an actress and a model.
And then I married an entertainer Canadian entertainer who was appearing in Las Vegas a lot. And, uh, so we moved to Las Vegas, married, moved to Las Vegas, and then three years later, uh, I was expecting my first child. Um, and then around the time that, uh, my some was to be born, uh, my then husband was going to be appearing in Toronto, Canada.
So we thought I should jump on a plane. Early while I was pregnant, go to Toronto and have this baby, um, there, um, get, like, get prepared to have the baby there, like on an airplane. It was a chunk of flight. Um, midway to Toronto, I went into labor. I was eight months pregnant. They let people on the plane.
Then at eight months they let people smoke. And so I was gagging and throwing up. I had no idea, uh, that I was going to have a child born with down syndrome. Um, and so here in an attempt to be a junket flight and the plane was full of doctors and nurses. So this interesting plane lands in Toronto, I’m an emergency patient.
And my. Baby boy is born with down syndrome. And, you know, once you got over the shock of, of that, um, and you know, your life changes and I was still a dancer, I was still an entertainer and that was our life. And we’re. Coming back to Vegas. That is our home only to find out that Christopher falls into an exclusionary class of individuals who can immigrate to another country.
So at, uh, 18 months of age, our son, we found out earlier than that, but at 18 months ago, age, he was actually turned back from the border American border, uh, declared an undesirable alien. And we couldn’t get entry into the place. That was a home. We had become legal residents of the United States. Uh, but Chris wasn’t allowed.
And that sent me, I changed my life. I became a fighter for the disabled. Um, I started trying to figure out ways to get Chris into the country and, um, eventually through our connections, I. Uh, got Senator vice president Hubert Humphrey became Christopher’s sponsor. Uh, and then long story. I mean, it’s in the book, we’re leading up to that, but, uh, so, uh, just two years of old, Chris had a sponsor who was a vice president and he came into the country and when everything was fine until a vice president, Hubert Humphrey died.
And that was when Chris was seven. So I was living and going to school in Las Vegas. His sponsor died. We’re told to get Chris out of the country. And so we didn’t do that. And I harbored an illegal alien in my home. Uh, for the next 15 or so years while I started raising money for, um, this particular organization called opportunity village here in Las Vegas
And, uh, I became a realtor, really good fundraiser, pretty good advocate for people. I just couldn’t get my son Regal. And then my, a fluke of fate. I was at a disability conference in Washington. I was late getting there. Um, I, you know, the plenary session over, I was a speaker the next day that dinner was on and I walked in, there were no seats
I went to go back to my room and somebody in a cage indicated that there was a seat in this room of 2000 people like threaded my way through sat down at this only one seat out of again, 2000 people in this room. And shouting introductions across the room, across the table and the lady at the other end of the table she’s Oh, you you’re the speaker tomorrow.
And I said, yes. She said, you know, I’m from Nevada too. I’m I’m from Reno and whatever happened, you didn’t, you, wasn’t doing, you’re trying to get your son legal in the United States. And I shouted across the table. I’ve been harboring illegal alien in my home for 18 years. And the gentleman sitting next to me, turned around and said, what, what did you just say?
So I quickly told him the story. He turned out to be the head of immigration and naturalization in the United States. And I sat in that room next to the guy that could either have me thrown out of the country or could help me. And he helped me. And so, uh, one month shy of Mike, Christopher turning 18. How you became an illegal alien in the United States?
Um, onstage at the Hilton hotel at a concert with Wayne Newton share and senators, then Reed and Brian, and was presented American flag. And so. You know, that’s the quick story. I, I was a fundraiser. Um, I raised a half a billion dollars here in Las Vegas for this particular charity. I left there two years ago, uh, after building five campuses and raising that kind of money.
And I became a, I wrote the book. And I became a fundraising consultant and that’s what I’m doing now. Wow. So many paths we can go down. So first does telling that story ever get old? No, for. It surprises me in that I was told by so many people to write this book and, you know, we all have stories and it just dawned on me that it’s a unique story.
The more I tell it and writing the book and the interest in it. And there’s an interest in a movie version of it. I was going to ask. Yeah. It’s because I imagine it’s kind of a cinematic movie. Yeah. Um, a couple of entertainers trying to get their kids legal. Um, but, uh, today I am speaking to a large gathering of people and I will tell that story.
Now I will see jaws often. I think because people have no understanding. There’s no need to know unless you have a child with a disability. Uh, you don’t know the, uh, the discrimination and the exclusionary issues. And, and the interesting thing was when I moved to the United States, tried to move to the United States.
The law said people exempt from entering the United States are number one, criminals, number two, retarded people. That was the written law. I thought, well, Canada wouldn’t do that. And I, when we looked at the Canadian immigration laws, they said people like exempt from entering Canada. As permanent residents were number one, morons, imbeciles and idiots and their families.
Number two criminals. So not much has changed. The language has changed, but folks like Mike Christopher still fall into this exclusionary class of individuals. And has there ever been any reason behind that, that you’ve been able to discover why they define it that way? I think the laws are archaic and they go back to the days where they thought people were carrying a communicable disease.
But also, and most recently, as president Trump has said, if, um, with the recent laws, they don’t want people touching. It will be a burden on them society. So, you know, but it’s a broad brush because my son Christopher was born. I have raised now close to a billion dollars. For many causes within the United States, he’s been good.
And we’ve been good for this country or are not able to get him in. Maybe I would have raised that kind of money in Canada. I don’t know. So I think every situation is unique and different. Yeah. And what I mentioned earlier, when, when I first was introduced to you and saying there’s some overlap with my wife’s family, so my wife, um, she, her older brother.
When he was eight years old, I was hit by a car. And now he’s, he’s in his late forties now. And he’s been mentally disabled ever since and physically disabled and lives at home. And while that happened, when he was hit, my mother in law was in the hospital, delivering my wife and her. Twin brothers. She had twins in the hospital that were both premature with an eight year old that just got hit by a car.
And then her last child, um, my sister in law who has since passed, she was born with spina bifida. And so like, I’ve been exposed to those exclusions that you talk about and they’re pretty significant. They are. And, um, you know, with, with my book, writing the story, all of the proceeds go to the foundation that I started for Chris called the Christopher Smith foundation because of.
Families like your wife’s family. Uh, there is a glaring need for caregivers. You know, we, we expect these things to happen. And then you said, I think you said your 40 year old brother-in-law he’s living at home. You know, for my son, Chris, who recently passed away at age 48 is 48 years of 24 hour care for the prefer a person with a disability.
So, um, you know, I continue to go down the path that Christopher’s life sent me on in terms of raising money and fighting for rights. And the two big issues are people like your mother-in-law deserve a break, or your wife has her. Something happens to your moms and it becomes, you know, a year of family needs to probably look after this individual.
And so there’s a desperate need for caregivers there. Terribly underpaid. You can pay more money flipping. Yeah. Hamburgers. Then you came caring for some of the most profoundly disabled people. And the other is residential opportunities. Um, there are not enough choices in residential opportunities for kids like your brother-in-law my son.
And so I, I continue, uh, to worry, okay. About the future for, uh, some of the most neglected and misunderstood people in human history. Yeah. And the housing thing, it’s definitely something that I’ve been exposed to as well. So my brother in law, um, as, as they go to these, these groups where disabled people, he has some best friends that are also disabled.
And one of them he grew up with and was neighbors that lived behind my mother-in-law at their old house and, and his, this neighbors. Mother said, if anything ever happens to my disabled son, will you take care of them? And while she passed away. And so now my mother in law also takes care of this other gentleman, it stable and, you know, nailed it.
Like she needs a break. Um, but, but like, what do you do? Because she, she is the hub of the life of, of all of these people. And so other than just a short, intermittent break, maybe a weekend here and there, like, yeah, it’s a. It’s definitely. Um, I mean, I don’t even know how to say, like, you just can’t really, you can’t really properly describe unless you see it.
Well, it was broken. And, um, and it’s up to us who have experienced living with a person with an intellectual disability to fight for them. But we get exhausted from it. I’m, I’m sort of a rare parent that just dived into it. And because you can lay down and die or you can kick into gear and get going, or you can do, uh, what your mother in law has done and, you know, help us many people as possible.
But. And you get this tiny, tiny little bit of money from the government to support that individual. So, um, more of the system is broken is your mom has two individuals. She gets this tiny little piece of money, which probably amounts to, uh, I don’t know, maybe it’s like 600 $5,700 a month per individual for their SSI benefits.
Versus if she said I can no longer look after my son or my neighbor’s son. She has they’re adults. And so she can decide that she can no longer and she can hand them over to the state. So then the burden becomes on the taxpayers for the state to look after her son and her neighbor’s son. That’s an average of, depending on the level of disability, anywhere from $500 to $800 a day.
So you’re one family member. Is saving taxpayers, a minimum of a thousand to $1,500 a day, 365 days a year for 40 years. Yeah. So, bye. When you go to the government for help, I’m going to say, well, you got the SSI benefit. And so, you know what happens is you many years ago in the sixties, they closed down these.
Terrible institutions that were designed to just shove people into, and there’s this one, uh, thing fixes everything attitude. And so, uh, they’re saying, okay, yeah, we’ll give you this tiny little bit of money to look after this individual. We have these group homes that they can live in and they get terrible care because people are paid terrible wages.
And what happens is more and more people. Are outliving their caregiver because of modern medicine. And so what happens to your mother-in-law when she’s gone? My son passed away before me and my fear, because for a long time, he was a healthy down syndrome diet. My fear was in some respects that he would outlive me cause he’s going to love him and take care of him.
And so, um, it’s a, it’s messed up. It’s really messed up. System’s messed up. It is D so you have the one seat in this packed house. Do you believe in some sort of fate? I’m sorry. Say that again? And some sort of, but so you ha you said at the one available seat in this packed house of 2000 people and you just happen to be right next to the right people.
Do you believe in some sort of bait? Yeah. Um, I do. Um, and, and it’s proven to me. Over and over and over again that I really think that things happen for a reason. And, um, you know, my, my son was my gift. I wouldn’t change him for any other child in the world. I don’t know that I would want to have a second understandable.
He changed my wife’s life in such a positive way. And was it difficult? Yeah. But life is difficult. Um, and so. Uh, yeah, I it’s proven over and over again that I don’t think there are any coincidences. There’s some, there’s a higher power. How has life changed since your son passed? It’s a, you know, I’m still getting used to it.
If don’t ask me that much about how I’m doing, because I’ll start weeping on your show. I’m fine until I start talking about him, but it’s only been a couple of months. And, um, but I’m, you know, I’m just sort of this, this person, uh, that, um, gets a lot of enjoyment, uh, and staying out active. And, um, I have this gift.
I’m a, I’m a pretty good fundraiser. I want to impart this knowledge to others. I have groups that I’m helping around the country, even around the world actually. And, uh, it has helped since versus passing, then I’ve been kept very busy. Good. Yeah. And I want to, I want to get into this fundraising and your book.
And if I could just ask one more question, I won’t, I won’t beat you up and make you cry. But one thing that I’ve noticed in, um, since my sister in law passed from spinal bifida, um, my wife and my mother-in-law are into like, uh, you know, patterns and yeah, and they don’t proactively seek patterns and look for signs in life.
But. But when they see something that means something to them. They’ll, they’ll mention it. And since my sister in law passed, they have this thing with threes, number three and butterflies. So for an example, like threes, my son was born on January 3rd. Um, my sister in law passed away two months later on March 3rd.
Um, and then there’s just all these threes everywhere and then butterflies, everywhere we go. So my mother in law says that, um, you know, she feels like, uh, my sister, her passed her name is Ashley. Ashley is around whenever they see butterflies. And I’m not one to, like, I’m kind of in the middle, like I’ve, don’t say yes, there’s like these supernatural things or whatever, but I can’t deny the consistency in her seeing these butterflies and all these moments.
That means something to her. Do you have any sort of scenario like that going on with, with you and your son passing? Um, Yeah, I constantly, I I’m always looking for signs by the way. And, uh, and I asked for, uh, particularly, uh, you know, as, as a, a person who’s sort of dedicated my life to making the world better for other people.
I, I just, I can’t understand right now I’m helping a group, um, who their daughter passed away from. Um, A drug overdose. I lost, we lost our granddaughter at age five, who fell through a window to her death. Uh, our grandson killed himself at age 19. And so you, no, what is all this about? And, and, and you’re looking for signs and meaning, and, but I keep, uh, you know, my, my, my grandson died Christmas morning.
And it’s, it was like a week later that I got a phone call, these other people that, that, uh, you know, very important people who, uh, they, they own the Westgate resorts and their daughter committed suicide and out of the blue and all of these years, I find myself helping people. Who, um, who has suffered or to this experience of a child dying from drugs or suicide or overdose.
And, you know, it just it’s like, wow, these, these things keep happening and these messages keep coming. And, and I, and I’ll tell you an interesting story with my son Christopher’s intellectually. It was very young. Um, and he loves super Grover and he liked all the Sesame street characters and his super Grover character was by his side for 40 years.
Uh, and he had one, you push it and it goes up, up and away, and it does all of these things. And when I’m a Christian died in my arms, uh, he was in hospice care at home and the hospice nurse came over. And uh, said that, you know, he could pass away today. He could last another week and I’m caressing him and holding him and telling him, talking to him.
And I talked for about 20 minutes and I finally, the last thing that I said was, you know, Chris it’s okay. Mommy, I’ll be okay.
And as soon as I said that he stopped breathing, but anyway, Um, when they came, the mortuary came to pick him up and take him out of the house. It was so sad. And they said, do you want to say goodbye?And as they were going to the door and we were all there, super Grover by itself said,
that’s crazy. So at Chris’s grave site, I have all of his little animals there. And, uh, all of his little toys there. And I go to the grave site once a week and super Grover’s there and I push the little super Grover, you know, and it goes through its things and it talks and it makes me smile because Chris got such enjoyment out of it and it goes up, up in a way and then that’s it.
And as I get up to walk away, it goes, that’s true. Yeah. What do you, what do you even say? It waits five minutes. I have never looked up. I’ve never gone online to see if the super Grover is programmed to wait five minutes to say goodbye. You don’t want to know. Yeah, that’s so crazy because my. My wife was there when my sister in law passed.
So, um, as I mentioned, my son was, he was still a newborn. And so, um, she was going into septic shock. And so my, a, um, wife went there knowing that the, this might be the final goodbye and the same thing that you said. Um, everybody left the room except my wife. And she told her sister it’s okay to go. And when she walked out, they call the code blue.
Yeah, that’s crazy. That’s something, isn’t it? Yeah. All right. So you were the catalyst of no longer allowing pregnant women on the plane. It sounds like. Um, so congrats on writing the book. I just finished a book on SEL, my area of expertise, man. That is such a task. How long did it take you to write your book?
It was probably the most daunting thing. It was easy to raise a billion dollars than it was to write that book. Oh yeah. I’m sure mine was so personal. I’ve started on another book and I’m in high school drop out, by the way. I didn’t get my high school degree until I went back to human LV at age 23. Uh, but.
I’ve started on another book called, uh, it’s called, uh, confessions of a sense city fundraiser. And it’s going to be a lot easier because it’s just going to be like stories from the hood, you know, and, and I’m going to have someone I’m going to dictate it and someone else. Write it type it up for me. So, um, yeah, it, it, it was hard to write that book.
I bet just the legit six behind writing a book is so hard, but as the, yeah, and then you said adding the personal layer to that, that’s gotta be quite an undertaking. Um, and congrats on the fundraising success. I think we’ve got about five minutes left, so I want to. Give you the opportunity. You said that you want to bring this knowledge to other people.
So what are you hoping to help other people understand about fundraising world, you know, in, in fundraising? Uh, it’s, it’s not rocket science. You know, I’m really fortunate that I learned Cedar, my pants and my experiences came from making mistakes. Um, you know, eyes and ears before mouth. Listen, listen to people.
Don’t start talking about your charity and what you need, listen to what they need. It’s about them. Mmm. Or stewardship, you know, you talk to donors and they say, we just constantly get hit up. We get this. Thank you letter a once in a while, but people just don’t know how to treat a donor and you treat a donor like you’re, they’re your best friend and it’s and it’s work.
Um, There’s it’s similar to any business that, that you venture into. It’s all about the customers and all about them. And then in fundraising, you know, giving people. If you want their help, give them a problem that they can solve. You know, I was talking to a group of people yesterday about helping them with fundraising and, and they were saying, um, you were selling raffle tickets.
I think it was. And I said, well, to help an organic, I said, so what was the money for the raffle ticket for? And they, none of them could answer that. It was just to help. The organization. I said, so what kind of help does the organization need role? You know, they need millions because they’re serving. So they’re, they’re a great organization.
They’re serving so many people I said, so my $10 is just a drop in the bucket. Yeah, I can’t affect change and give me a problem I can solve. And, and so, uh, if we’re out there and we’re asking people just to throw the money into this big pile, this big pot, it doesn’t feel good. It really feels good though, if it’s a manageable.
So, so I have this exercise that I do, and I say I have $50,000 in my bag and I’m a donor. And who in the audience wants it. If you put their hand up as come and tell me about your, your, you know, why you need this money and inevitably I’ll get three or four people and inevitably they start going on and on.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. Yeah. Everything that their organization does and means wonderful things that they do, but they don’t tell me specifically, how am I? $50,000. Can change a life. Number two, they never asked me about me. Who am I? So we talk about that three minute elevator speech, and you get into an elevator with the whatever head of the corporation.
What is it that you’re going to say to engage that individual? What I’m going to do is, you know, hi, mr. Hilton. I’ve read I’m so it feels so good. Getting in this era, in this elevator with you, you do amazing thing and engage them and tell them about how wonderful they are. Before you start telling them about you.
So, um, I don’t know if I answered your question cause I’ve almost forgotten what you’re asking. No, it’s good. It’s interesting that you say that because a couple of years ago, um, I I’ve had this ongoing interest in helping and, and, but I don’t know in what capacity or to who. And so I went through this kind of, this, this discovery process where I said, well, I’m just going to kind of.
Let things evolve until I figure out about why and what I ultimately ended up deciding to do was I looked up all the title, one schools in my area, which are the low income schools. And I had an assistant call all the schools and say, what’s your outstanding lunch balance? And I tallied it all together and I called the district and I paid it all off.
And for me that mattered for them exact reason you said, because when I was younger, I was a beneficiary of, um, I can’t remember the lunch programs names, but you know, we came from a low income family and so I could relate to them and, and I wanted, and you nailed it. I wanted to know that my couple thousand bucks, which wouldn’t mean anything to a huge charity, it would make a direct impact on somebody or something.
And that’s the exact reason why I did it. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And you change, you changed a lot of lives that day, and I, I would hope that they let you know and that they continue to let you know, because once you, once someone gives to me, I never let go of you. So as you become more and more successful year, the guy that bought lunch for all of these children, you will get letters from children.
You’ll get letters from parents. Know I will stay in touch with you. You’ll be doing it again next year. And maybe as you become super wealthy, you’ll be sponsoring all the lunches for all the kids in the whole state. Um, and that that’s the way it should work with a really good fundraiser, stewarding a wonderful.
Donation. That was definitely the best part was, um, getting the, the randomness that followed I’d get private messages on Facebook that said I had, you know, I was a direct beneficiary. Thank you. Or it was really interesting to see. The way it inspired others. And that part I didn’t think about. And so then I started getting messages saying I had no idea that somebody could make such an impact on such a basic level.
I’m going to now take this action or I’m going to contact this person. And so that was probably the coolest part is seeing where the new snowball started rolling down different nails. So that’s, I’ll be here and thank you for that. No. Yeah, my pleasure. Well, thank you Linda, for your time. I know you’ve got to get going.
Um, thanks for sharing your story. Thanks for crying a little bit. It makes it a little more personal and what’s up Nancy, my mother in law. She’s going to be listening to this. I’m going to make her listen to this one.
Uh, she is so appreciated and I absolutely know, uh, the sacrifices that she has made for that. And there’s a special place in heaven for her. I’m one day we’ll get there and we’ll all be able to we’ll all know the answer. Yeah, it is. Linda’s life.com. facebook.com/liveLindaslife. Same for Twitter, same for Instagram.
And you can also catch her on YouTube. Anything else you want to say? Linda? Okay. Yeah, because the proceeds a hundred percent of all the proceeds go to the Christopher Smith foundation, the book is called unwanted by Linda Smith and it’s available on Amazon and Barnes and noble. Um, and so is there a link on Lindaslife.com to get them over to your book?
Yes, there is. All right. There you go. When does lindaslife.com everybody? Thank you, Linda. Thank you very much.