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Linda Smith explores fundraising and life of her son in memoir

Updated May 10, 2019 - 6:49 pm

Many Southern Nevadans recognize Linda Smith, Opportunity Village’s chief fundraiser and public ambassador for 38 years. With every opening of the Magical Forest and every start of the Great Santa Run — and news reports about the nonprofit’s doings — Smith reinforced her unofficial status as Southern Nevada’s most recognizable nonprofit executive.

But people don’t really know Linda Smith. Most are not aware of the abuse Smith suffered at the hands of her father when she was a child, or the periods of homelessness her family endured after fleeing him, or the challenges she faced raising a child with Down syndrome.

Now, Smith offers the Linda behind the public Linda in her new memoir, “Unwanted: How a Mother Learned to Turn Shame, Grief and Fear into Purpose, Passion and Empowerment” ($24.99 hardcover and $14.99 softcover through lindaslife.com).

Unexpectedly, the book’s release comes at a sad time: Smith’s son, Christopher, died last month at age 48. A service for him is scheduled for May 15, and Smith’s memoir takes on additional resonance as a tribute to the son who inspired her.

Smith says she was encouraged to tell her story by friends “who knew this different story of this other Linda, not just the Linda who created the Magical Forest and not just the fundraising Linda, but just the sort of back story that maybe could help other families.”

Abuse and insecurity

The book begins with a reminiscence of the day Chris was born, then shifts to England, where Smith was born in 1949. She remembers herself as a shy, insecure child who grew up in a family other families on the street would try to avoid.

That was because of Smith’s father, who she describes as “an inveterate gambler, always on the losing end … a cheater, a womanizer, a thief, and a child abuser.”

Smith, her mother, Lilian, and her sister, Jean, fled to Canada when Smith was 10. When their father followed them to Canada, they started moving around from friend’s home to friend’s home and even spent time in a Salvation Army shelter.

In the end, only his deportation from Canada — for carrying a gun while, Smith says, on the way to kill his family — freed them from him.

“Thankfully, he was deported and that ended that whole part of our life,” says Smith, who never again had contact with her father.

A big break

Smith had battled a negative self-image from the time she was a child.

“I always felt homely, ugly, stupid,” she says. “Embarrassed. Always wearing hand-me-downs. At some point in my life, I just did not want to be that person.”

Looking back, she can identify several moments when a stronger, more determined Linda appeared. One came just before Smith finished high school when she — a natural dancer — auditioned for and won a spot as lead on a national Canadian dance show. She became a model and was so popular that she inspired her own “Linda Christopher” (her name then) hair style.

In 1967, she met Glenn Smith, Canada’s entertainer of the year. They dated, married and moved to Las Vegas, where Smith performed. On May 15, 1970, their first son, Christopher, was born in Toronto.

The couple’s plan was for Glenn to finish an engagement in Las Vegas and then drive to Toronto, where his next engagement was. There, he’d meet Linda, who would fly to Toronto earlier to make arrangements for the birth.

However, Linda went into labor during the flight. When Chris was born, she remembers waiting to meet her son in her hospital room and doctors and nurses somberly entering and standing at the foot of her bed. One asked if she knew anything about “chromosomal abnormalities.”

“They said, ‘This child is profoundly disabled and has a lot of medical issues, and it’s probably not going to live very long.’ ”

“It was horrific,” Smith says. “I’ve talked to other parents who have very similar stories.”

In retrospect, “there was a period of time when I had to accept and forgive myself,” Smith says. “I actually didn’t want Chris to live at first because the doctors told me he wasn’t going to. I thought, ‘That’s good. That’s what’s supposed to happen.’ ”

Then came a determination to fight for her son, as challenging as that would turn out to be. “Dr. Spock books were all about healthy babies and didn’t prepare you for the birth of a child you were told would ruin your life,” Smith says.

The family found another challenge in the form of U.S. laws that prevented people with such conditions as Down syndrome from entering the country. Chris — born in Canada — didn’t receive status as a legal U.S. resident until he was almost 18.

Finding opportunity

Smith’s nonprofit sector began when she was seeking resources for Chris. She discovered Opportunity Village, a small organization founded by a handful of local families. For about seven years, she did volunteer fundraising until they asked her to do it full-time.

“I became this fundraiser because of Chris,” she says. “So many of my experiences revolved around Chris.”

Chris also inspired the Concert of Love, an annual fundraiser that included some of Las Vegas’ most famous performers. The first Las Vegas edition was held at the Desert Inn, but the very first was held in Toronto, and — thanks to the Smiths’ show business connections — included Gilda Radner and Paul Shaffer, who then were performing in “Godspell” in Toronto.

“Gilda Radner was so sweet. She was so lovely,” Smith says. “She loved Chris and would make little funny faces at him.”

Seven years after Chris was born, son Jason arrived. Linda and Glenn divorced when Chris was 14 and Jason was 7.

Jason “became a disability leader,” Smith says, and started the first Best Buddies chapter in Las Vegas. Jason and his mother also founded the Christopher Smith Foundation, whose mission is supporting family members of developmentally disabled children and professional caregivers. (Proceeds from the sale of Linda Smith’s book go to the foundation.)

Christopher’s legacy

Christopher Smith had struggled with a number of health problems in recent years. He died last month, just a few weeks after Linda Smith’s memoir was released. While Christopher influenced the course of her life, Smith has seen how his legacy has extended beyond a circle of family and friends.

When Chris was hospitalized with pneumonia a few years ago, a doctor “asked us if we want to intubate Chris and save his life,” Smith says. It took a few minutes for her to realize that he was essentially “giving us the option to pull the plug.”

“I remember asking him, ‘Do you have any children?’ He said, ‘I have two young children.’ I said, ‘What would you do with your children?’ He said, ‘I’d do anything to save them.’ We said, ‘Save him.’ “

It took more than three weeks to stabilize Chris, Smith says. During his hospital stay, family members, friends and Opportunity Village colleagues stopped by to visit and thank hospital workers for taking care of him. Later, Smith says, “The doctor said, ‘Your son has taught me a lot. I feel like I’m a better doctor, a better man, a better father,’ and he had tears in his eyes.”

Smith smiles. “Guys like my Chris can teach each of us lessons.”

Smith presents such a vivid picture of Chris in her memoir that it seems like he’d have been a nice guy to know. “I do have people saying, ‘I’d like to have met him,’ ” Smith says. “I have a million stories, and he did affect people, and in such a positive way.”

Life after Christopher

Smith says writing the book allowed her to revisit and put to bed some of the unpleasant chapters in her life. But, even now, with Chris’ passing, “I have nightmares of, ‘Did I do enough? Did I make the right decision with hospice?

“So I miss him.”

Smith left Opportunity Village in October 2016 as vice president of the nonprofit’s foundation and now is a fundraising consultant and motivational speaker. “I just felt that the timing now was right for me to leave and help other organizations and take a stab at telling my story in writing this book,” she says.

“It’s not a pity party,” Smith adds. “It’s not a sad story. It’s an amazing story of overcoming obstacles. It’s a story of how you can rise like a phoenix out of the ashes if you just set your mind to it.”

Smith hopes, too, that her story and that of her son will prompt people to “look at kids like Chris and not see the disability first, to sort of look past the disability and see there’s a cool human being in there and see that they’re more like us than different from us.”

Contact John Przybys at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0280. Follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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