Mary Alice Smothers: Community Character
Mary Alice Smothers knows what needs doing, and right now it’s finding a bowl big enough to hold the baked beans that are part of the end-of-summer barbecue at the P.E.A.C.E. community center on Wyoming Street. That’s why she’s standing on a chair in the little kitchen surrounded by a small army wearing hair nets, and reaching high into a cupboard for the bowl.
She’s made a name for herself in the community because she gets to work doing what needs to be done, and she doesn’t suffer fools.
“Don’t come in here and tell me what you’re going to do for these kids. No. You need to understand them—you need to understand what they see every day—before you can know what they need. Then we can talk about what to do for these kids.”
Mary Alice wants you to understand something. In fact, she wants you to understand many things, but there’s this above all—everything starts with the children. She believes in the children on Syracuse’s Near West Side. She believes in color, too. And science. “Don’t make children learn in a place painted sterile green! There’s research that shows lavender walls soothe children. You need color!”
Sitting in her office, Smothers is surrounded. The shelves in her office are warped by the binders full of regulations she follows—to the letter—to run the P.E.A.C.E. Center. But ask her how she runs the place and she’ll start by telling you about the people to whom she’s devoted her life, and that’s when you realize she is surrounded by pictures of successful people. And when she talks about them, she talks about her role in helping to build their character.
A sign on the front door announces this is a S.A.F.E. place, but. Mary Alice and her staff have gone above and beyond safe. She has created a different world where things are done by, as she says, “the old-school rules.”
“Mary Alice is a natural leader who does things the right way,” says Michael Short, the CEO of Short Enterprises and a close friend of Smothers. “She builds communities of people around her, and then somehow gets them to do amazing things.”
There are moments that make a person’s professional competence crystal clear. For a Marine Drill Sergeant it’s the moment when troops move through complex maneuvers with effortless unity. For a brick mason it’s the inexorable brick-by-brick rise of a plumb wall. For Mary Alice, that moment comes at lunch time.
Sit in her office on a summer morning, and you’ll hear a steady pounding overhead, clear evidence of children having tons of fun in an upstairs playroom. But at 12:00 noon there is a silence that might be suspicious but for the time of day. In what used to be the foyer of the center, 16 children sit quietly at four tables eating their lunch. As the adults mingle, the children smile at us confidently, seeking eye contact and acknowledgement. It is a moment from the 1950s when school children ate calmly, enjoying each other’s quiet company as much as the food. It’s unremarkable except for the fact that this never happens anymore.
In that moment you see the depth to which Mary Alice practices what she preaches, and that’s her signature advantage. She combines a fierce competence with a clearly loving devotion to the people in her life.
“My dream facility would be to have a senior center on one floor—during the day when the kids are in school. And then the after-school programs to help these kids get their homework done, and a teen center hours at night.”
Community centers are not a new idea, and for that reason they often go wanting for funding. The standard criticism is that these ideas have been tried, and they have failed. to an extent that is true, but a close reading of the history of public institutions is that they live or die by the efforts of committed individuals. The best office can be destroyed by an indifferent bureaucracy, and chronically under-funded outposts can survive by the strength of a great leader. In Smothers we have a strong beating heart of a community, a leader devoted to developing character and preserving the essential grace of the people in her neighborhood.