Fostering children a way of life for New Kensington woman
While her Baptist church doesn't recognize traditional sainthood, Darla Smith, 68, of New Kensington surely walks the walk.
As treasurer and trustee board chairman of Canaan First Baptist Church, Smith has earned a reputation within the church for her extraordinary faith and compassion.
It's her life outside the church, however, that merits the admiration of any humanitarian.
Since 1995, Smith has cared for 45 foster children from Allegheny, Westmoreland and Washington counties. Her Third Avenue home has played host to as many as six foster kids at a time, including three teenage mothers and their infant children.
The New Kensington native once even harbored a family of five for more than three years.
She says she's never regretted her role as a foster mother.
“It can be difficult, but never overwhelming,” Smith said. “I love and care for each of these kids like they were my own biological children.
“They all have their own problems and personalities that require unique approaches. That's part of what I love about it.”
Smith is currently caring for two 14-year-old girls and the two small children of a teenager whom she had previously cared for. The girls' biological mother has since returned to her own house, but the children stayed behind after Smith legally adopted the pair.
Despite the full house, Smith has imminent plans to take in a third teenage girl through the Families United Network in Penn Hills.
The former dietician got involved with the foster care service almost 20 years ago when she was laid off by Citizens General Hospital in New Kensington after 33 years.
“For the first time, I had all this free time and I wanted to use it to help others,” she said. “I thought I would give some kids who needed it a better life.”
One such kid was a 10-year-old girl named Jazmen who in 2000 went to stay with Smith in foster care.
Jazmen had always said her sole desire in life was to have a mother, so Smith surprised the young girl on her 11th birthday and adopted her at the magistrate's office.
After the proceeding, she gave her a necklace locket with a picture of her face above the inscribed word, “Mom.”
Now 23, Jazmen Smith has three kids of her own, a house in Homestead and a part-time job while she works toward a college degree.
“The life position that I'm in and everything that I have is all, without a doubt, because of Darla,” Smith said. “I don't know where I'd be without her.
“She'll still, at the drop of a hat, do anything for me and, more importantly, my kids. She spoils them.”
Smith said Jazmen is but one of her former foster children that stays in touch and still benefits from her care. Some frequently stay at her home overnight and still even call her “Mom.”
Even with the onerous responsibilities of foster care, Smith said she still finds time for her immediate family.
Smith and her only biological daughter, Tenika Burke, 39, had disputes with Smith over her fostering, but have since made amends. They remain close and see each other often, Smith said.
She also makes frequent trips with her foster children to Fort Wayne, Ind., to visit her brothers Cecil, 63, and Wally, 53. Smith said she plans to visit her sister Deborah, 65, in Florida in the near future, as well.
The foster mother even found the time to remarry in 2010, three years after she was widowed.
But perhaps most notable is the time she finds to help grieving families.
Smith, upon request, bakes and cooks for families and funeral services of deceased New Kensington residents at her own expense.
“I've gone through it, and it's terrible when you lose someone close,” she said. “It's good for people to know there's someone out there who cares.
“I didn't even know I was good at cooking until people starting talking about me and asking me to do it.”
The foster mother also voluntarily cooks for friends' weddings and certain Canaan First Baptist Church events.
Ronald White, a pastor at the Kenneth Avenue church, particularly enjoys Smith's pineapple upside-down cakes.
He said the time she dedicates to the church and the community is indicative of her faith and character.
“She's the type of person that wants to help others in any way that she can,” White said. “She's always ready to go out of her way if it benefits someone else.”
White grew up in the same New Kensington neighborhood as the Smiths and considers her brother Cecil his best friend. With more than five decades worth of time spent around her family, White said he's grown to know Smith fairly intimately.
“She's always been a beautiful person,” he said. “What she's done for all those kids is unbelievable. She really has saved all of their lives.”
With all the hardships of motherhood, what keeps Smith going?
“My love and my trust in God,” Smith said. “Always.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org