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PASSAGES South Side Help Center founder Betty L. Smith
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

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South Side Help Center ( SSHC ) founder Betty L. Smith, 76, died March 6 at home from Alzheimer's disease complications and a long illness.

Smith was born Feb. 5, 1942, in Sandhill, Mississippi and at her parent's urging attended the renowned all-Black boarding school Piney Wood's Junior College. Upon graduation, Smith moved to Chicago, where she got a respiratory technician/therapist certification and later a non-profit management certification from Roosevelt University. Smith worked at various hospitals including Rush University Medical Center ( Presbyterian-St. Luke Hospital ) and Ingalls Memorial Hospital.

It was while working at Ingalls Memorial Hospital in 1987 that Smith encountered many Black men were dying of AIDS. These men were shunned by family, friends and clergy, so Smith founded the non-profit SSHC—the oldest African American-led community based organization addressing HIV/AIDS in the Black community in Chicago and Illinois—to educate the African-American religious community on HIV/AIDS.

Her goal was to help negate the stigma around the disease as well as the spread of the virus. Since then, the mission has expanded to include HIV/AIDS outreach and direct care services for not only adults, but also especially young people of color as well. SSHC focuses on prevention in part by addressing mental, physical and social ills so its clients can live productive lives. When Smith retired in 2008, she passed the executive director torch to her daughter Vanessa Smith, who still holds that post.

Throughout her 21-year career running SSHC, Smith received many accolades and awards and was featured in the Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Defender, Washington Post and Essence Magazine as well as in both local and national TV interviews.

After Smith retired, she continued to provide mentoring and consulting services to Chicago's LGBT leaders from many organizations.

Another way Smith gave back was establishing the Valerie Smith-Reid Scholarship Fund, named after her other daughter, to assist high school seniors across Chicago with their first year college expenses. The fund distributed more than $60,000 during its 12 year run ( 1998-2010 ). Additionally, Smith volunteered at the Greater Chicago Food Depository/Food Bank program at her home church—Chatham Avalon Church of Christ—for many years.

Her last major public appearance was at SSHC's 30th-anniversary celebration last September at the historic Parkway Ballroom.

In 1963, Smith met and married Vannish E. Smith; together, they raised their two daughters Vanessa and Valerie in Chicago's Roseland neighborhood. Vannish died 10 months after the couple celebrated their 47th-wedding anniversary in 2010.

Smith is survived by daughter Vanessa, grandson Aaron, two great-grandchildren—Aaron Jr. and Ariss; siblings, Elex ( Lileann ), Willie Stewart, Pearl Stewart, Margie ( Charles ) Ross, Brenda Campbell ( Walter ) Jenkins, Hattie McGinty, Linda ( Lloyd ) Robinson and Maryland Thompson as well as a many nieces, nephews, cousins and other family members and friends. She was preceded in death by her husband Vannish and daughter Valerie as well as parents Dolly Mae Turnage and Sam Stewart.

"Betty's determination, paired with her compassion to empower people with the tools to be physically, mentally and spiritually healthy beings, has and will continue to be my inspiration to serve," said SSHC Director of Operations Peaches Fondern. "She did not view people based on their circumstance, but instead saw their individual needs and then did what she could to help them. She would say 'you have to meet people where they are.' I know it was not a easy task but she did it with such grace and strength. I saw her as a warrior. She always made sure we understood the necessity of being prepared before going into battle. She will be sorely missed by me and everyone else at South Side Help Center."

"We will always remember Betty as the 'onion lady' because she would bag the onions for the food pantry's clients on Saturdays," said Chatham Avalon Food Pantry Coordinator Mattie Curtis. "She was a loyal supporter of the food pantry for many years and will be sadly missed by our organization."

"I met Betty when I was 15 and she quickly became like a grandmother to me," said former SSHC youth services recipient and staff member Louis Spraggins. "She provided me with financial, emotional and spiritual support when my family was going through hard times and I was unable to get the support I needed from them. I learned so much from her and that has guided me through all of my professional endeavors to this day. These skills have served me well as I have worked in community health at a variety of service agencies and other workplaces over the past 25 years. Her passing leaves a hole in my heart but her work will live on in the many people, including myself, who learned from her."

"Betty was a pioneer," said Thresholds CEO and past President/CEO of AIDS Foundation of Chicago Mark Ishaug. "She fought with love and power to prevent HIV as well as care for those living with HIV/AIDS. Her big brain, huge heart, passion, commitment and vision put her in a class all to herself. And her legacy lives on in Vanessa, in everyone at South Side Help Center, and in AIDS warriors everywhere. We will do her proud by never giving up until we end AIDS—everywhere and for all."

Funeral services were held March 17 at Chatham-Avalon Church of Christ, 8601 S. State St., where Smith and her family spent many years as parishioners.

During the services, Ald. Carrie Austin gave a copy of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's resolution to the family and instead spoke about Smith as her friend. Austin noted that it was Smith who encouraged her to accept then Mayor Richard M. Daley's appointment to her late husband Lemuel's city council seat in 1994.

Other community leaders also provided words of remembrance at the funeral.

The family has asked that people donate to SSHC in lieu of flowers.

First coverage and photos here: .

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