SPIRIT OF STANLY: Melissa Smith works to bring SCS, groups together

Published 11:17 am Wednesday, March 29, 2023

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She was a principal for 10 years at Central Elementary and a teacher before that, but she now works in community involvement and dropout prevention for Stanly County Schools.

Beyond her job title, however, Melissa Smith brings a fire and energy to help children, parents and staff find new ways to connect with people.

When she was initially approached for her current job, Smith said, she saw it as something she was already doing as a principal.

“I was like, ‘OK. So you want me to do it on a different level?’…This is something I personally think everyone should do,” Smith said.

She advocates getting to know “who you live with and where they are at, their strengths and just build on them.”

Smith believes her role with SCS is to physically get out from behind a desk every day, to be “viable, accessible and present to the community.”

“You can’t take the community out of me. I’m the type person that will make sure to be nosy about what’s really going on, and see how what I’m hearing connects to the school system and benefits children,” Smith said.

While having established relationships with many charitable organizations and businesses in the county, Smith said her focus is on the basic level.

“It’s all about relationships. I’m constantly making connections and partnerships,” Smith said.

Often, she said she will hear about Pfeiffer and a sports event, or initiatives from a local bank, and she will find the benefits for students for that activity or drive.

Many times people will not see SCS as a true partner, Smith said, so she tries to connect with people and remember her face and positivity as being associated with the schools.

“If it’s a part of Stanly, it should be a part of the school system. Our students deserve the right to know what is available to them right here,” Smith said. “The Stanly community, believe it or not, has enough resources to meet the needs of our students…it takes somebody to pull those resources together for people to see it is here. It is beneficial.”

Smith mentioned a local group of concerned citizens looking to start a reading program for students who are lagging behind others.

Her job is to research how that program would work and gather input from many sources in the community.

“We are constantly researching and looking for ways that would best benefit Stanly County Schools,” Smith said. “It’s not easy work because there is so much going on. It would be nice if everybody would pool their resources together and know that we’re all on the same team, fighting the same battles.”

Having too many separate entities, she said, is one place Stanly struggles in terms of not coming together as a community.

The Diversity of Students

Smith said another place the community must recognize is the diversity of students, adding adults must recognize diversity and “be willing to learn more about cultural representation.”

In many ways, she said, children are assets in the lives of adults, but children often say adults just do not understand them.

“I am trying to find creative ways to let students know, ‘I’m cool. I understand you. I know you are different. We can build on that.’ It’s going to take more adults being like that, letting go of their close mindedness and be more open to diversity…Stanly County has changed so much, so the people are going to have to change with it,” Smith said.

If adults do not listen to kids, Smith said, “when they get older, they’ll turn Stanly upside down.”

Kids will express their freedoms and stand up for their rights in the future, she said.

Help for All Students

In her capacity with SCS, Smith said, help is available for all students, even those who do not make straight A’s.

Sometimes, she said, a student just wants companionship, to know someone cares about them.

“Students know I’m not going to judge them when they tell me they have personal issues, but that I will try to help them navigate to a solution that is profitable for them. Whether they follow it or not is up to them,” Smith said. “When they fall, I’m still there. That’s the most impactful (thing)…they want to be heard.”

Through SCS, Smith has helped create a mentoring program, asking principals for children not just with drug or behavior problems, but those who have a void in their lives.

“I connect them with counselors, and they connect students with mentors…even if it’s just 20 minutes at lunch, (mentors) can come in and say, “Hey! I’m just checking on you. How are you doing?’ ”

Getting Away From Podiums

In her capacity as the director of community engagement, Smith said she has had many invitations to speak to organizations.

While she said she likes to be motivational, Smith believes more in action than words.

“I’m more of an action person. I started making connections,” Smith said.

Early in her job, which started in 2021, she would learn about students who were hungry and connect them with Stanly Community Christian Ministry to receive services.

However, instead of stopping there, Smith said she has often driven food out to families as well who needed it. Bringing food affords her the opportunity to form relationships with people, to encourage them and ask questions about their lives.

One trailer park community in the county with kids in need received meals for Thanksgiving and Christmas, along with 30 new bikes as presents.

As a person of action, Smith said she often brings representatives from banks, SCS and other institutions out into the field to see where the needs are.

“I say, let’s get out of our chairs, our offices, our spaces, and go into these spaces. When they see the need, they want to know what to do next,” Smith said.

“That’s what this county misses. We’ll do an event, but you have to do things consistently and persistently. We drop too many things too fast. We do a good thing, but we need to make it pervasive so it’s part of the culture. That’s my biggest challenge,” Smith said.

However, she added, she never stops being thoughtful about learning things herself, saying, “I want to become more skillful at reaching people.”

Making A Difference

Stanly County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis talked about the difference Smith has made in the last year in her new role.

Dennis said Smith is integral to SCS by being a liaison between the schools and the community and coordinating SCS’s involvement in different community events.

Having worked in other school systems, Dennis said he created this position modeled from his past experience.

“There are certain communities that there is a disconnect between the community and the school system. That relationship is not there for a lot of different reasons,” Dennis said. “[She] connects us and those communities with different resources.”

“As you can tell, she is a genuine person,” Dennis said. “She’s a really caring person and wants the best for everyone. I think that  really resonates with people. When they talk to her, they say, ‘This person really has my child’s best interest in mind.’ ”

Her experience of being a principal at Central for 10 years, Dennis said, showed she was always “ingrained in the community. It was a no-brainer when it came to the person we needed to fill that role.”

“You can’t fool children,” Dennis added. “They know when you care or don’t care. That’s one thing innately kids know…that is the one thing that is disarming when you talk to her. She will disarm you because you can feel that this person really cares for you, for your well being.”

About Charles Curcio

Charles Curcio has served as the sports editor of the Stanly News & Press for more than 16 years and has written numerous news and feature storeis as well. He was awarded the NCHSAA Tim Stevens Media Representative of the Year and named CNHI Sports Editor of the Year in 2014. He has also won an award from Boone Newspapers, and has won four North Carolina Press Association awards.

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