When Ed Smith retired from his law practice, he and his wife, Linda, dreamed of all the things they would do.
But three months later, he was diagnosed with cancer. And five months after that, he died.
Linda Smith went from planning their long-awaited trip to Italy to organizing her beloved husband's funeral.
"You think you have all the time in the world," says Smith, 61. "Then you realize just how precious every moment is. There are no guarantees."
A nurse since 1968, Smith was grateful she had her work to keep her mind off her grief. But that didn't fulfill her.
A year into widowhood, Smith was at a friend's birthday party when she met Sister Ann Kendrick, one of the three founding sisters of the Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka, Florida. The program, partially supported by the Diocese of Orlando, serves poor and needy farmworkers and their families.
Although Smith had never worked with migrants before, she was drawn by Kendrick's enthusiasm for the ministry and its impact on the lives of the people it served. She reasoned that it would fill up the hole in her life left by her husband's death. So she cut back her hours at work and began volunteering with adults as a one-on-one English tutor. There was just one problem: Smith didn't speak a word of Spanish.
"I wasn't going to let that stop me, although it was a challenge," she says with a laugh. When hand signals didn't work, she relied on the other Spanish-speaking volunteers. With the shoe on the other foot, Smith says she became more empathetic to how difficult it is to communicate with others when language is a barrier.
She knew she had found her calling on the very first day of teaching. A woman came to the program, embarrassed that her 4-year-old daughter could read a book in English "and she didn't understand it and couldn't even pronounce the words." Smith told the young mother they would start with that book and move forward.
"I'm a nurse. I've never been a teacher, much less taught people of another culture," she says. "But this is where God led me. It was almost like a free fall. I had to trust where he was taking me, even though I had no idea where I was going."
As Smith became more attached to the Hope CommUnity Center, where she volunteers about six hours a week, she knew she had to tackle the once-daunting task of learning a new language. Putting her fears aside, Smith is now teaching herself Spanish and loving it. "I'm the perfect example that you can teach an old dog new tricks," she says.
She used to spend about five minutes every morning in prayer, talking to God and her husband. Now, with all the experiences she's getting at the Hope CommUnity Center, Smith needs to reserve half an hour.
"The prayer of St. Francis is so true," she says. "In dying you can be born again. I didn't believe that when I first lost Ed. But I have this whole new life now, one I couldn't have imagined just two years ago."
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 2, pages 24-28).
Image: Linda Smith tutors Mateo Pedro at the Hope CommUnity Center in Apopka, Florida. Photo courtesy of Hope CommUnity Center.