Debbie Smith began her career as a preschool teacher, putting her double-major in education to efficient use.
So, here’s a pop quiz in math:
Question: What’s the difference between December 31, 2020 and August 21, 1987?
Answer: 12,187 days.
And despite weekends, holidays and vacations sprinkled throughout, not one passed without Debbie Smith thinking about the Fox Valley Park District. Or, more accurately, how to make it better.
“When you have such a strong feeling and belief in what you do – and what your work does – well, it’s just the way I am,” said Smith, who recently retired from the FVPD after 33 years of service, her remarkable career recognized by the FVPD’s Board of Commissioners at its January virtual meeting.
“I’ve never had private time in my life that the park district isn’t a part of … and that’s by choice. I always look for that connection to work with someone who will better the park district and the community.”
“That’s half my life,” said Smith.
So, it’s understandable that it’ll take her a bit to speak in past tense about her three-plus decades spent working at the District, but for the community. After all, her service spanned five executive directors and 31 trustees/commissioners.
“She outlasted us all!” said Bob Vaughan, longtime FVPD executive for whom the Vaughan Athletic Center is named. “She’s in rarified air.”
Following her graduation from Northern Illinois University in 1976, Smith worked at Eagle Foods in various capacities, though her passion – her life’s calling – lay just around the bend. Once she and husband Mike started their family with the first of three sons, Smith was introduced to the District in 1981 when she enrolled her oldest in Creative Play Preschool at the Prisco Community Center.
From there, she volunteered – and singlehandedly started an in-house soccer league – before being hired as a preschool teacher in the fall of 1987. Two years later, Smith served as the preschool coordinator at Prisco and in “13 wonderful years as a preschool teacher,” she was involved with the Ghost Walk, Mid-American Canoe Race, Easter egg hunts, Daddy-Daughter Dance and, naturally with three boys, created the first mom-and-son event at the FVPD.
“Debbie is the do-it-all gal, the utility infielder – you name it and she’ll do it,” said Vaughan, noting that Smith was always the conduit between community members and District officials. “She’s such an easy person to get along with and people would confide in her what they may not have said to others. She always had the frontline story of everything happening out on the streets.”
In 2000, Smith accepted the new position of Elementary After-School Supervisor, where she oversaw Summer Playgrounds, developed 65 after-school programs, Art in Motion, home-school programs, Neighborhood Art, Sports Saturdays, middle-school programs and started community outreach programs.
In 2006, Smith was promoted to Community Outreach Manager, along with the additional title of Volunteer Coordinator (the District’s Fox Force Volunteer Program was established under her watch).
The last 12 years of Smith’s tenure were spent with the District’s Marketing team, on which she maintained her previous responsibilities, while shouldering additional community outreach roles. One was the 21st Century Community Learning Grant – “a huge part of my career,” she said – which enabled the FVPD to form partnerships with local school districts, allowing children to participate in grant-funded recreational activities supervised by Park District staff in their respective schools.
“When I came here, Debbie was well-established as ‘The Face of the Park District,’” said Jim Pilmer, the FVPD’s executive director since 2015. “She managed relationships with community stakeholders and had a brilliant public-service career, serving preschool children to seniors.”
As the calendar flipped toward the end of 2020 – slower, it seemed, than usual with the pandemic sidelining many community events in which she’d have been a centerpiece, her sleeves rolled up – Smith had extra time to stroll down memory lane, a bittersweet adventure, to be sure. She opened boxes, some untouched for years, sorted through pictures of former students and letters from grateful moms, and generally reflected on 33 years of dedication to a profession that never produced two days of doing the same thing.
“It’s been the most rewarding experience,” Smith said. “During and after all these years, to have someone stop me and remember me, that’s what it’s all about. I’ve been able to see 3-year-olds change into adults and start their own families, send their own kids to school.
“But it doesn’t matter how many after-school programs I did or how many programs I started that are still going now. I got more in return than what I gave – and it’s not even close.”