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With Passion and Purpose, She’s Changing the World

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Experienced in working with emotionally disturbed children, Rita S. Smith knew well of the hurdles that arise when the warm safety of home dissolves. Little did she know her next job would make her realize this was only the tip of the iceberg. Her epiphany about an often-overlooked epidemic of silent desperation and terror fueled an unstoppable passion that has driven her to impact countless lives in profound ways. Learn about how this intrepid recipient of the Polk State College Distinguished Alumnus Award was a pioneer in the work of healing and preventing the outer wounds that engender inner agony, transforming pain into hope one family at a time.

Rita S. Smith

As the first person in her family to graduate from college, Polk State College Fall 2011 Distinguished Alumnus Award Recipient Rita S. Smith was introduced to entire new universes of possibilities – both in the outer world and within herself.

“It started to open my eyes to other people and other experiences, and to recognize that what I understood about the world was just part of the bigger picture. I had a couple of impactful professors that instilled in me that idea that I could be whatever I wanted to be,” said Rita, who grew up in Winter Haven.

Studying Psychology satiated her desire to delve into another, deeper world – that of the human mind and emotions. After graduating from Polk State College in 1974 with an AA in Psychology and receiving her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Michigan State in 1976, Rita landed a job working in a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children. With some counseling experience under her belt from that position, she embarked on her next job interview only to discover that the job involved something she had never heard of – a battered woman’s shelter.

In the 1970s, the issues of battered women and domestic violence had not yet come to the forefront in the psychological field.  Consequently, these subjects had simply never been covered in any of her classes. None of her previous experiences – professional or academic – had prepared her to help victims of domestic violence, so Rita literally had to dive in and learn her role “on the job.”  She became acutely aware of the deep problems that are created when individuals do not feel safe at home, and how important it was to make homes a safe place for kids. Suddenly, her career path became clear – she could change the world by ending violence in the family.

Over the years Rita’s work has had a great impact both in Florida, where she later worked as a domestic violence volunteer at Peace River Center and served on the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s board of directors, and in Colorado, where she brought her knowledge and skills to a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children and later worked as a counselor at a battered women’s shelter.  And her accomplishments reverberated across the nation when she became part of the nonprofit National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Rita was contracted to be the conference coordinator for the NCADV in 1992. The organization was struggling, so she offered to stay, rebuilding the entire organization. A year later, she was named executive director. Today, the NCADV is a flourishing national non-profit that works at the grassroots level to end violence in the home.

As executive director, Rita builds corporate partnerships and secures donations for the organization. She is often called on to comment on domestic violence, and has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and national news broadcasts. Her responsibilities also include working on legislation pertaining to domestic violence at the federal level. She has been to the White House during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, and in 2010 was present in the Oval Office when President Obama signed the Family Violence Prevention and Services Act. 

Looking to the future, Rita dreams of one day creating a shelter for domestic violence survivors in her hometown of Winter Haven. She embodies the perfect combination of passion and hands-on determination – she returned in February  2012 to meet with a grassroots group to discuss plans for making this dream materialize, and is more than willing to personally help in any way possible to keep it in motion until it comes to fruition. She is acutely aware that domestic violence is an issue that can face any person at any time, and has the satisfaction of knowing that the work she is doing has indeed changed the world and made it a better place.