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Michelle Smith Keeps Good Company

(Image courtesy of Michelle Smith.)

Administrative assistant Michelle Smith says she often thinks back to her family's large Christmas celebrations, when her mother always made sure that everyone had a gift. Even though the family has expanded so much that presents are now assigned by a drawing, Smith—who also goes by her married name, Strand—says she can't resist buying something for everyone.

"It was instilled in me to buy gifts, because I always saw my mom buying them," says Smith, who worked in the Experimental Facilities Department's cryogenics group for many years before moving in 2008 to assist at the Facilities Department help desk. "Now if you saw my list, you wouldn't believe it."

But her generosity isn't reserved for just family. For many years she has donated money to charities supporting American veterans. During the holiday season, she tucks five-dollar bills into greeting cards, which she keeps in her car to give to homeless people she sees when she's running errands.

"There are some people who are really roughing it out there," she says. "I do it so they can feel like somebody's thinking about them at Christmas too."

For the past two Decembers, the sprightly Smith has been a regular sight at local supermarkets, jingling Christmas bells with one hand and ringing a Salvation Army bell with the other. "I have a set up," she says with a grin. "I bring a tall stool decorated with red and green ribbons and bows, and my own CD player with Christmas music."

The holiday season is over, but she says that now she plans on spending even more time volunteering for the Salvation Army and other good causes.

"I got this inspiration from our new president," says Smith, who was one of the estimated 1.8 million people to attend Barack Obama's inauguration this January. "He is more involved with people, more connected with people. He has a sensitivity to other people's situations."

There were just ten days left until the inauguration when Smith's husband suggested she make the trip. "I thought about it, how it would be such a historic event, a lifetime event," she says. With so little time to make plans, it seemed unlikely she would be able to go. But then, searching through the family directory, Smith discovered a relative in Washington, D.C. A phone call to Cousin Mildred reassured her that what had seemed like an impulsive scheme could easily become reality, thanks to her family ties.

Michelle Smith at the capitol. (Image courtesy of Michelle Smith.)

A veteran of packed rock concerts and mosh pits, Smith says she didn't mind standing for hours on the National Mall and getting cozy with a growing crowd. "I've had very crushing moments, so I wasn’t fazed," she says, laughing. As the hour of the ceremony approached, the crowd's excitement swelled to a fever pitch, but the gathering stayed amicable. During the swearing-in, perfect strangers embraced as if they had known each other for years. Even with so many people in attendance, there were no incidents during the ceremony.

"Everyone was just so above that. It was so peaceful, there wasn't one squabble," Smith recalls. "It was so spiritual, the vibes there, so many harmonious people."

Since her return, Smith says she has been looking for even more ways to contribute to the community, so she subscribes to an email list from the Redwood City Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services that alerts her to upcoming volunteer opportunities. Recently she spent a day at a local park, painting a mural side-by-side with other volunteers while her husband helped shovel in new woodchips for the playground.

But to a large extent, giving is something Smith doesn't have to think about. A self-confessed pack rat, she's constantly on the look-out for unwanted items that could make a difference in someone else's life. She says she often finds that these "treasures" can be put to good use in other places. A large box of old greeting cards was welcomed by a senior citizen's home, where many of the residents had family members' graduations and birthdays around the corner, and unused NASA educational souvenirs were a hit at a local school.

"My husband says that's why our garage is full of stuff," Smith says with a smile. "It's kind of been a habit, just second nature. If I have an abundance of something or I see something that's been tossed out, I think, 'Someone can use this.' It's kind of like recycling. I just try to keep it going."

—Lauren Schenkman
SLAC Today, April 15, 2009