Crystal Smith, 55, works as a peer recovery specialist at Pathways, and as a paraeducator for students with special needs at Riverside Elementary School, where she founded Little Sister Save Sister, a student peer mentoring group modeled after a similar group she started while working at John Marshall High School.
She was able to answer a few questions while getting ready to fix dinner. “You’ve got to catch me when you can,” she said.
What brought you to Rochester?
My family was living in Chicago and my husband was murdered there. The system failed me — the justice system. It was a hung jury. The case is still open and that was more than 31 years ago. We — my four kids and me — came down to Rochester to visit my sister-in-law and we kind of liked it so we moved here. I was a single mom and a widow at 23. It was terrible.
Your experience of moving to Rochester was terrible?
When we got here, it wasn’t peaches and cream. I faced a lot of discrimination. Housing discrimination, employment discrimination, discrimination in the schools. There was so much name-calling and discrimination.
How did you cope?
I met a lady here, she became a mentor and she was from Chicago (Jackie Trotter). I got involved in the PTA in the school, the (Rochester) Community Foundation, NAACP, helped found the AACC (the former African American Community Council).
This was to help people who were in a similar situation you were in when you moved here?
Yes, sir. If I knew who the go-to person was for anything, I tried to make their road a little easier. That’s my purpose. I love helping people. I love to see them get to where they want to be. But then, don’t look down on people. Remember where you came from.
How did you get your drive to help people?
It goes back to my mom. Ever since I was a kid she was always a part of something. She worked with ACORN, she volunteered at the homeless shelter. It was instilled in me.
Is your mom still around?
Oh, yes! She’s 87 years old, she still drives. As a matter of fact, she’s got a couple homeless people living in her home right now. She’s got a couple of bedrooms downstairs. She works with the center and they do all the paperwork and background checks. She just gives them a place to stay and a bed. She’s been doing that over 45 years now.
Do you think you’re setting a similar example for your kids?
I hope so. They’re all involved, too. And I have 21 grandkids.
How do you find time to work multiple jobs, volunteer and spoil 21 grandchildren?
It comes natural. I go to them. We love to camp, so I take them camping. Right now, I got about 10 teenagers and 11 under 10. We do family reunions, we do a lot of family gatherings here in Rochester. I mean we used to, before COVID hit.
Have things improved in this city for people of color for your kids and grandkids?
Ain’t nothing changed in Rochester but the weather. Well, things have changed a little bit. There’s still not enough employment opportunities — you still don’t get the same shake if you look like me. It was a bumpy road when I came here. They’ve got resources and people helping out but it’s still tough. The pavement is a little bit better but it’s still a rough road.
What are some recent struggles you think the community has had?
All those people sleeping in the park. We went down to drop off some toiletries, supplies and things when they were camping out. I was in tears. There’s no reason anyone should be sleeping in a tent in a city as wealthy as this. That shouldn't have happened. That’s what I’m so pissed at Rochester about right now, because nobody came out there to help. Ain’t nobody should be staying in that park but the ducks.