HOMETOWN HERO | Mastering the art of understanding

Peace in the world just may be possible. If we all seek first to understand, rather than to be understood. People that have encountered Norma Smith describe her as an empathic listener with the desire to understand others. Whether she is volunteering with her youth group, mentoring young adults or serving in the political world, Smith asks questions and listens with no other agenda than to comprehend.

Hometown Hero Norma Smith is joined by her grandchildren William Van de Mark

Peace in the world just may be possible. If we all seek first to understand, rather than to be understood.

People that have encountered Norma Smith describe her as an empathic listener with the desire to understand others. Whether she is volunteering with her youth group, mentoring young adults or serving in the political world, Smith asks questions and listens with no other agenda than to comprehend.

Norma Metcalf, a South Whidbey volunteer, recalls,

“I remember when Norma was on my husband Jack’s staff when he was a U.S. congressman. Jack felt the Department of Defense was covering up illnesses our troops in the Gulf War were contracting. He asked Norma to investigate.

“When Norma came over to report to Jack what she had heard from the veterans, she broke down in tears. She spent hours with each Marine and soldier listening to their stories and asking questions so that she clearly understood. Because of her persistence to find the truth, justice for the veterans was won.”

Metcalf adds that Smith gives Jack all of the credit, but it was her listening for comprehension that made all the difference for these veterans.

Smith says her husband Steve showed her what a difference a servant heart can make, and listening to others is a big part of that. He helped and encouraged others to achieve their dreams.

Steve was an EMS helicopter pilot who saved countless lives, but tragically in 2005 he lost his own life in an attempt to save a mountain climber.

Together in 1980 they began a youth ecumenical ministry out of their home. When they moved to Whidbey Island in 1989, they continued their young adult home ministry here.

Josh Wenzek, 25, is a graduate of South Whidbey High School who has been a recipient of Smith’s passion for young people. Wenzek is a local farmer with plans to do mission work in orphanages.

He writes: “Norma is my hero. She and her husband and now Norma herself have been huge in my development. She listens and asks about my life, and has been an important mentor and role model.

“She took a group of us on a mission trip to Guatemala in 2007, a life-changing experience. No matter how busy Norma is, she always makes time to ask us about our lives and to listen,” Wenzek adds.

“She has led a young adult group in her home we named ‘C to the fifth power’ — ‘College Career Christ Centered Community.’ She has mentored so many young people and helped us build our confidence and develop our faith so we mature to caring Godly citizens, helping others wherever we go.”

Smith says, “My greatest joy and love, other than my family, is spending time with young adults.”

“One Christmas, we emptied out our downstairs and set tables and chairs up to serve dinner to 50 young people. I will never forget that night a young man new to our group came up to me and said, ‘Mrs. Smith, that was the most beautiful Christmas.’”

“It was a bittersweet moment because he had been in trouble with the law, and was going in for a long jail sentence,” she remembers. “Sometimes you only have a bit of time to encourage, and that is hard.”

Fortunately, Smith has had more time to spend with others.

“So many of the young people we were privileged to spend time with have gone on to make such a difference in this world,” she smiles.

Smith believes life is meant to be shared. Share our stories, our home and our plain everyday lives with one another. They have had many people of all ages live in their home. Currently she has opened her home to a family of four.

“I think it’s important to show respect, but also I think it’s important to remain authentic so others can see how actual challenges in life are worked through. And when we screw up, which I do regularly.” She laughs, shaking her head up and down.

“We need to apologize and make it right. Often we need to make changes in ourselves or the situation, but it does no good to beat ourselves up. Make the changes and move forward. This is the same for treating others, when they (like me) act like ‘turkeys,’ grant them grace and forgiveness.”

She says she is working on accepting criticism from others with grace as well.

“I try to find the kernel of truth in criticism people give me,” Smith adds. “I find I tend not to become defensive if I let go of how the criticism was delivered or questioning if they should have said it at all. Then I can take what I think might be true and discard the rest.”

Alicia Hagan, a local farm girl and mission volunteer, says Smith is one of her role models and heroes.

“She is the kind of woman I dream of being like someday. She always challenges me to be my very best, she calls us all to be heroes, and she genuinely believes we can.

“The moment Norma sees you she is sure to run up and give you a big hug and then engages in her true listening. She has a way of listening that makes you feel you are the most special person and truly loved,” Hagan adds. “She seems to understand others needs and desires, probably because she lets others to the talking while she truly listens to us.”

Smith has a real gift of listening, says former South Whidbey School District Superintendent Lisa Bjork.

“Norma doesn’t just listen until the speaker finally quits talking; she listens attentively to truly understand. She used this gift to understand many different points of view while she was on the school board, which was certainly a treasure for all who worked with her for the good of the schools. Along with this was her ready laugh, and welcoming spirit.”

Smith says since age 15 she has carried around one of her favorite poems from St. Francis of Assisi.

“It is such a challenge to me that I need a daily reminder of these words, to remind me to listen rather than speak,” she says. She paraphrases a sentence from memory. “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console. May I seek to understand rather than to be understood.”

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