As a young teen, Shericka Smith ’05 watched her mother at work as the director of the Salvation Army’s homeless shelter. She absorbed the many gestures of kindness and the trauma of families being separated. “Since then,” she says, “I’ve had this passion for helping families and helping kids, and helping parents stay on track so they can do what’s best for their kids.”
Smith excelled as a student at Tates Creek High School and followed her sister, Shawnetta, to Transylvania, where she was able to thrive, she says, and “prove that no matter where you come from you can succeed.”
In 2014, she returned to her alma mater, Tates Creek High, where she was named Kentucky’s 2016 School Social Worker of the Year. “I’ve been blessed by having opportunities,” she says. “I just felt it made sense to come back and help the same folks in the same neighborhood I grew up in and left to make a better life.” Every day is different for Smith, because, as she explains, students who experience trauma manifest it in ways that can’t be anticipated. “For the kids who act out, once we dig deeper and find out it’s because of a traumatic event, then we can work with them.” And listen.
As a certified Youth Mental Health First Aid instructor, she is active in the county’s Project AWARE grant, helping to train teachers, faculty, staff, parents and even some older children how to look for signs of mental illness. “I love training. I love spreading the word—making mental health okay and reducing the stigma,” she says. “But also meeting so many different people from other schools and agencies and hearing their ideas and struggles and seeing how we can come up with a plan together.”
Smith is constantly learning, mentoring and earning advanced certification in her field, emulating those who guided her. “The professors and everyone at Transy helped me on my journey to do more,” she explains. “Besides the great education I received, what sticks with me the most is how much professors gave back and invested in their students—that whole attitude of helping others and being there for each other.”
She loves writing recommendations and seeing the process repeat as Tates Creek students attend Transylvania, then return to their alma mater to teach, as several have.
When asked about the difficulty of her job, she deflects praise to acknowledge her colleagues. “Funny thing,” she says, “I know my job’s hard, but, being in education, I admire teachers. I don’t think I could do that. We all lean on each other, which is great. I wouldn’t be here without teachers. It’s full circle.”
MEET THEM WHERE THEY ARE
The Rev. Kathryn Perry ’10 steers head-on into what most of us shove aside until left without any choice: death—and prioritizing what is important during the transition from life to death. As a palliative care chaplain at the University of Kentucky’s Chandler Hospital, her days straddle this life and the next for families of every background and belief.
Perry’s work requires putting the self aside to enter a sacred and exceedingly difficult place, listening carefully to the needs of the most vulnerable and being supportive of her peers on the palliative care team. Together they tend “the sickest of the sick” from around the state, meeting them at any point in an illness. “Pain is physical, emotional and spiritual,” she explains, which is why the palliative care team is interdisciplinary. Much of her work is about helping people with anxiety and providing emotional support.
“The listening component is one of the most beautiful things about what I get to do every day,” she says. “I invite people to tell me about their lives or what’s important to them, what they value.” More often than not, it isn’t a party affiliation or a particular argument that rises to the top—“it is spending time with the people they love, it is going fishing or watching television and eating ice cream—those very simple, seemingly ordinary pieces of life that really make us who we are.”
These end-of-life lessons are ripe for the living. For Perry, it’s about being willing to leave your preconceptions behind and to meet people where they are—the golden rule of hospital chaplains—“not necessarily to try to change that place, but to try to understand and see where they’re coming from.” Connecting to people through their stories is something she believes her Transy education prepared her to do.
Perry sees her Transy education as a whole. “All of the classes collectively taught me to be a certain kind of person and thinker,” she says, and professors, campus initiatives and alumni continue to inspire her. “They’re teaching people how to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.”
Listening deeply, being curious, willing to challenge the familiar and learning to value others above ourselves, are testaments of who Pioneers become. “They’re teaching people how to live the values that Transy espouses and that brought me to Transy,” Perry adds. “They’re teaching by showing and by modeling what it means to live a generous life.”