Christine Smith just turned 25 yesterday but has a wealth of life experience, passion and positivity far beyond her years.
A family advocate with the non-profit Hope Haven Children's Clinic and Family Center, Smith was born in Barstow, Calif., to a military father and half-Chinese mother originally from Korea. After five years in Japan, Smith and her family came to Laurel Bay when she was 6, and after her father's retirement, moved to Beaufort-proper when she was 12.
Smith's father studied to be a nurse after retirement but wound up a successful electrician. Her mother felt isolated at Laurel Bay and went back to Japan when Smith was 9 and her older brother was 11. Smith's mother never knew her own mother -- who left her to be raised by relatives when she a baby -- and she never knew her father or even his nationality. She ran away when she was 12, Smith said, and travelled a great deal, "taking care of herself her whole life."
Her mom "only speaks broken English, and I only speak English," Smith explained, adding that she "did a huge paper" on her mother while in college, but she still doesn't really understand her mother's story. Though her mother speaks Chinese, Japanese, Korean and English, she only had an education up to fifth grade. Her mother didn't teach her daughter any other language but English "because she really wanted me to be Americanized because it had been so hard for her when she was a kid, being biracial."
A few years after she left, Smith's mom came back into her life, and Smith only saw her once in awhile while she was growing up. But after the birth of Smith's daughter, Faith, Smith's mother became a much bigger part of her life. Faith "loves her grandmother, because she spoils the heck out of her," Smith said.
Her senior year of high school, she said, she "got really slack" and didn't apply to any colleges, though she had been a good student. The summer after graduation, she was waiting tables at Secession, where she met her future husband, Tory. He encouraged her to apply herself in college at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, and she said, "I ended up loving this school! I really tried to find my own way there. I really focused on my grades and got straight As throughout college. I really devoted myself to human services. I knew that's what I would be good at, helping people."
After internships at Citizens Opposed to Domestic Abuse and the Collaborative Organization of Services for Youth, an internship at Hope Haven allowed Smith to shadow the outreach coordinator, and she found that she was "really passionate about public speaking." She did puppet shows with the kids and taught them to say no, to seek help from an adult and to give them permission to run away from a potential assailant.
Pregnant at the time of the internship, Smith gave birth to her daughter and then was contracted to help with outreach. After she graduated, a part-time family advocate position opened up at Hope Haven, and six months later, she was hired full-time.
Most would probably find the work Smith does emotionally taxing. Though she advocates for children, she spends most of her time with adults, such as the victims' parents. She does a lot of crisis counseling with DSS, victims' parents and law enforcement. She also does referrals and gives victims' parents information on helping their children through trauma. She said a lot of times parents don't know that they can report concerns about child abuse to law enforcement.
In addition, if a counselor isn't available for a walk-in victim, she serves as counselor and sits in on forensic medical examinations to make sure the examinations go smoothly.
One of the most difficult aspects of a difficult job, she said, is that a child will often be more traumatized by adults not believing he or she was assaulted than by the assault itself. Even with parents who do their best to get help, she said she has to explain that by calling Hope Haven and the police, they have done everything they have control over, which is ultimately more important to the child's healing than action through the legal system will be. "They have a lot of guilt and need a lot of help with that," she said, "and the legal system isn't always going to be there to help everyone. To get a guy convicted is hard," especially for rape and sexual abuse whether the victim is an adult or a child.
Nov. 1, Smith will take a new job at Hope Haven as a sexual assault outreach specialist. Under the Violence Against Women Act, victims are no longer required to involve law enforcement if they want a rape kit. If women get the rape kit done, they have a year to decide if they want to report the rape. Though evidence at the scene of the crime will be lost, reporting is expected to increase because women will have the opportunity to collect the evidence and make the decision later, offering the choices after the initial trauma. In her new position, Smith will reach out within the five counties Hope Haven serves to work with law enforcement and hospitals to teach them to offer options to victims.
Though she admitted her work can be very stressful, even overwhelming at times, knowing that she has "a purpose" and is doing what she can to help victims of assault means a lot to Smith. Plus she has Faith, who Smith calls, "really hard not to be positive around," and her husband. Smith finds happiness in enjoying every moment when she's out of work. "I just want to have fun," she said.
She also finds release on the stage, where this year alone she has appeared in "The Vagina Monologues," and "Talking With" and is preparing for productions of "Twelfth Night," where she plays "a really smart fool," and "Steel Magnolias," where she plays Shelby, a character with a disposition as sunny -- and determined -- as her own.
Smith always wanted to be an actress. "I was always the little performer, trying to entertain people," she recalled, so she started doing theater as soon as she was able to. She didn't get very involved, though, until she was 14 and was cast in the lead female role as the Virgin Mary in the musical "The Butterfingers Angel" at the former Shed Center for the Arts in Port Royal.
At Beaufort High, she auditioned for everything she could "I did a lot of drama and dance and a little chorus in high school, and if I wasn't acting in it, by God, I was gonna do costumes, publicity, whatever I could, so I could get involved."
That work ethic is evident in her 9-to-5 job, as well. Although working at Hope Haven can be stressful, Smith gives the job all that she has.
"Even though it can be really hard to carry everyone's experiences sometimes," it helps her to see that "even though they have no control over it, neither do I. I really believe that we can only do so much and be in control of so much. What we do have control over, that's all we can really do. There's comfort in that. I do everything I know I can do."