It’s a stunning resignation: After 36 years of incredible service at Opportunity Village and advocating for people with disabilities, Senior Executive Vice President Linda Smith is retiring.
During her tenure, Linda has raised more than $450 million — $18 million in the last year alone. Two years ago, she brought in the single largest gift in history for a local disability organization. She raised $141 million in two years in honor of her son, Christopher, for the $150 million Christopher’s Crossing Capital Campaign.
Linda also created events we’ve come to love and support at O.V., including the Great Santa Run, Magical Forest, Camelot and more.
“I am at peace with leaving as I accomplished more than I ever imagined I could and am grateful to O.V. for giving me the opportunity to shine. I ride out at the top of my game,” Linda told me over the weekend when I learned of her decision. “I will continue to do everything in my power to support O.V. and the people we serve. I have not retired. I left to start a new chapter. I hope to be present at the events I created.
“Over the years, I have traveled around the world to help disability organizations, and now I will be free to do much more and will take what I have learned and help many more people across the country and around the world as a consultant. I also hope to be of service to Nevadans and use my skills in some iteration.”
A movie of her life story is in the works. She told me: “I have been approached a few times about telling my story over the years. I am now going to take the time to finish the book that I have stopped and started so many times.
“I am often a keynote speaker and last spring was the featured speaker at a small, local gathering when a young filmmaker with Black Raven Productions approached me. He was inspired, earnest and convincing, and he captivated me with his enthusiasm for my story.
“The plan now is to record many hours of conversation over a four- to five-month period, then write a script outline and, if polished enough, shop it to Hollywood. The filmmaker has compared my story to the movie JOY, and friends see at least a Lifetime feature.”
Linda’s life includes overcoming homelessness in Canada, unexpectedly giving birth to a profoundly disabled child on a flight to Las Vegas that had to touch down in an emergency landing and smuggling him across borders in a 17-year quest to get him legal in the U.S.
From a dancer to disability rights advocate, Linda has raised hundreds of millions of dollars and awareness for the plight of neglected and misunderstood people, and they are lessons all learned from her son, Christopher. Here’s a YouTube video of that poignant story.
It candidly tells of Linda’s rejection at first of her son at birth, then coming to terms to his entry into the world and loving him fiercely. As an actress married to a Las Vegas entertainer, she endured a 17-year battle to get their son in the U.S. At 9 months, he was labeled an undesirable alien and turned away at the Niagara Falls-U.S. border on Christmas Eve.
“Good-natured people sent in a million offers of help, and groups like the Onondaga Indian tribe citizens of North America offered to adopt him,” she said. “The Center on Human Policy gathered 800,000 signatures to legalize Chris, but it was rejected by President Nixon.
“It’s also the story of friends and entertainers like Wayne Newton, Johnny Carson, locals Walter Kane and the late Gilda Radner all joining the fight.”
Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who had a granddaughter with Down’s syndrome, became Christopher’s sponsor, enabling six-month visas. But after the VP’s death, they were accused of harboring an illegal alien for years while raising money for O.V. They also were part of the 1986 amnesty program and eventually turned down.
A chance encounter with an immigration official at a gathering in Washington, D.C., led to Christopher becoming a legal resident at age 17 onstage at the Hilton during the annual Concert of Love. “Our story is also of love and acceptance of Chris and the impact he has had on so many lives,” Linda said.
Linda was born in England, and her family fled to Canada to escape an abusive father. She revealed: “I suffered abuse and homelessness as a child, and I am sure that this is what made me a fighter for Chris and people who are marginalized by society.
“This is the right time to say goodbye. The time has come for me to turn the page. After 36 years at O.V. advocating for people with disabilities and raising funds O.V. has needed to become the standard by which all disability organizations should live by and the means by which every person if given a chance can prosper, create, learn and find friendships, I am retiring from my position.”
“The song ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’ pretty much sums it up. I left my heart at Opportunity Village, but the rest of me is continuing on. I will always be an advocate and champion for O.V. and the disability movement. People who have to fight for everything, from choice of jobs to where to live, all of it matters greatly to me.
“I am humbled to say thank you to so many, to community leaders who have passed on and to those who have taken up the mantle, to an amazing board of directors and even more amazing caregivers and hardworking creative staff, to my sons Jason and Chris and to my husband John, for all the support and love they have shown me. Together, we’ve laughed hard, cried tears, suffered setbacks and danced as we celebrated success.
“I am excited about this next chapter in my life, and although so very sad to leave O.V., I know that the O.V. family will continue to be the best family possible and that the future will shine brightly. Onward!”
In the 16 years I’ve been in Las Vegas, I’ve consistently worked with Linda. I’ve never met a more remarkable, diligent woman. Despite the hardships and never-ending challenges, she’s always had a smile and been cheerful in the face of adversity. She’s a role model to many and a personal guide to greatness.
Linda has been nothing short of remarkable in her years of service and rubbed shoulders with the rich, famous and unknown. Nobody failed to be moved by her infectious spirit. You got a true sense of who Linda really is when she stood with us to deliver a tribute this year for Celine Dion’s longtime manager and husband Rene Angelil.
Now she moves onto even greater accomplishments. God bless you, Linda, and let’s pray that all the foundations you set in place at Opportunity Village stand the test of time. We’ll hug, kiss and shed a tear at this year’s Magical Forest and Great Santa Run.