Smothers acts as role model, family member to West Side kids

Mary Alice Smothers' passion for helping others is apparent in her long days at the office and outgoing personality

She’s a rather small woman — maybe 5-foot-2, if you’re inclined to be generous — navigating her office with a hint of a limp (not quite as nimble as she once was, as she’s quick to point out). She has a slight hunch and a warm, amazingly wide smile — a grandmother out of central casting, really, seemingly at odds with the stories, told in reverent tones, that are impossible to ignore while spending time on the West Side.

Photo: Ethan Backer
"But then Mary Alice Smothers gets going, and she becomes a thunderstorm, less a person than a walking, talking (and always, always laughing) force of nature."

But then Mary Alice Smothers gets going, and she becomes a thunderstorm, less a person than a walking, talking (and always, always laughing) force of nature. Yes, she knows she’s running a bit late, and she’s very sorry, but a woman speaking frantic Spanish needs a ride to work and a child just ran in proudly waving the spelling test he passed today so if you’ll please have a seat she’ll be with you in just a moment.

She bursts back in and leads the way to her office. Seeing her seated and at rest seems almost unnatural. She swivels in her chair, fiddles with the corner of a paper on her desk, and looks about ready to leap should the phone ring or the door open.

“When people walk through that door, this desk right here is a barrier,” Smothers says. “When you sit behind a desk people think you have all the answers. So I sit on the couch with them, I sit at the table with them. I’ve cried with them and I’ve hugged them.”

Smothers serves as the coordinator of P.E.A.C.E., Inc.’s Westside Family Resource Center. But really, any title ascribed to what she does would inevitably be a disservice. The FRC’s list of responsibilities is almost laughably all-encompassing — everything from crisis intervention and housing support to family planning and after-school programs. Any given day could entail helping a family pay its utility bill or just serving as a place for kids to come finish their homework in peace after school. So perhaps the most accurate description for Smothers would simply be Matron of the West Side: in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, where high school graduation rates hover around 40 percent; where unemployment sits at 11.9 percent, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey; and where more than 50 percent of children are raised below the poverty line, according to the ACS, the concerns of the people who walk through those doors — her people — are Mary Alice Smothers’ job.

You would be able to fill five books with tales from the neighborhood about Miss Mary Alice, as kids call her, or the Queen Bee, as she’s known to just about everyone else. But one in particular sticks out: About a decade ago, she heard two neighbors complaining about an abandoned lot on their corner that had become a haven for drug dealers. So all five-foot-nothing of Mary Alice Smothers sought them out and warned them to shut it down. They refused. One year and countless hours of battling later — after grant proposals, zoning wars and trips to City Hall — the lot on Congress Avenue became a park. Not Smothers Park, no; that wouldn’t be the Queen Bee’s style. The name, instead, was Jack’s Place, in honor of the man who mowed that lawn and picked up its trash for years, waiting to see it turned into something beautiful, and who passed away just months before its transformation.

“Don’t think you’re just going to step all over her community and think it’s OK,” says Lori Covington, now the Family Resource coordinator for P.E.A.C.E. on the South Side who worked with Smothers for years on the West Side. “Not today, not tomorrow, not the next day. Tell her these kids can’t have an education. Tell her these kids can’t have a place to go and you see what happens. Just bring me the popcorn and the chair so I can enjoy the show.”

There are a thousand more Jack’s Places: insisting on riding the midnight shift with patrol cars in search of somebody, anybody on the streets who may need guidance; buying enough groceries to keep an emergency pantry stocked at the office ($400 in a recent Wegman’s run); taking kids on annual trips to Washington, D.C., so anxious to make the most of their time there that 16-year-olds were begging her to slow down. All of these stories have turned her into a sort of mythical figure, more a seemingly endless ball of energy and attitude than an actual human being — in the PEACE lobby hangs a picture of three Mary Alices on a staircase, looking reproachfully at the camera, with a caption below reading: “You always wished there were more than one of me!”

“She’s really like family to us,” Tiffany Mateo says. “She’s always asking about you, visiting you, taking time for you.”

Mateo first met Smothers when she was a seventh-grader six years ago. Now she’s a sophomore at Syracuse University, and she credits almost all of it to Miss Mary Alice — the grandmother she never knew, who was always there with a smile and a meal and a quiet table for her to focus on her schoolwork.

“I wouldn’t care about my education, really,” she says. “I wouldn’t care about being the person I am now. She’s always there when I need her, she pushed me to get this far in life. I might not even be here.”

But therein lies a bit of a problem. Mary Alice Smothers is over 60 now, and she can only be everything to everyone for so long. She seems almost supernatural, flying from her desk to the emergency pantry to Fowler High School and back, shaking off a stroke this past August to be back at work just a couple of weeks later. But quietly she thinks about the future, and there are some deeply human moments behind the Queen Bee veneer. How often does she think about her life after this place? The question isn’t finished yet before she has an answer.

“All the time, and lately more and more,” she says. “Not having to get up, not being woken up by an alarm, not having deadlines to meet. I just want to be able to sit back and play with my grandkids.”
It’s a startling admission — the woman whose door was always open, who had to be dragged out of the PEACE office by friends walking by at midnight on a weekend, gets tired just like the rest of us. But it begs the question: for 40 years, the West Side was Mary Alice Smothers’s office, its people her family, so where does she possibly go from here?

The answer is surprisingly simple. She thinks about trips to visit her siblings in Washington, D.C., and California. She thinks about taking a seven-day cruise to Jamaica, sipping drinks on the beach with not a grant proposal in sight. She thinks about opening a catering and events business, a place where the immigrant community on the West Side can cook their own food their own way for weddings, birthdays and anything else. Her friends and family have helped her let go — she shares an office with a woman named Bernadette, who will drag her out of the room on Friday evenings to go for a walk or grab a bite to eat and unwind.

“I’m slowly working on it,” she says. “They’ve helped me get the point where I can close the blinds and say ‘I’m done for the day.’ Now I can imagine a life beyond these four walls.”

That doesn’t mean it will be easy, though. Almost as soon as she’s done speaking she sighs, staring off out the window. There’s an 8-year-old in her program named Devante — “my little monster,” Smothers call him, “but inside he’s a sweetheart.” Whatever exhaustion she may feel, it’s Devante that keeps her coming back, at least for now.

“I saw the difference I made, how he’s changed, and I vowed that I would see him graduate high school,” she says.

What if another Devante walks through the door and into her life tomorrow? “I worry about that everyday. I pray to God whenever I see another one of those faces, ‘Please, lord, don’t let this be another one.’”

As she weighs that thought, balancing the future she’s longed for and the present that keeps tugging at her, the Queen Bee of the West Side seems almost vulnerable. She looks down, staring at the JOY sign that sits on her desk. Before she can get another word out, there’s a knock on the door. A young boy with big eyes pokes his head in, asking Miss Mary Alice if she had a minute to help with a math problem. In a flash, her doubt has been replaced by that thunderstorm, that force of unbreakable will.

“Sure, honey. You know you can ask me anything.”

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