A retired Navy senior chief petty officer who works as a contractor onboard Naval Support Facility (NSF) Dahlgren was recently named Big Sister of the Year by the Rappahannock Big Brothers and Big Sisters. "Big" Penny Smith says she has a special place in her heart for her "little," Shakyra, a local middle school student.
As a Sailor, Smith worked for the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWC DD) before her retirement in 2003. She currently works for Basic Commerce and Industries (BCI) Inc. and supports Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense. The Ohio native and single mom offers a direct answer when asked how she finds the time to volunteer in her busy schedule. "Volunteering is not work," she said.
Helping children reach their full potential is a theme that Smith repeats as she describes the feelings of satisfaction her volunteer work with Shakrya brings. "I met Shakyra when she was ten," she said. "It took us a few outings before she felt comfortable enough to open up. We both wrote down things we would like to do together and we placed them in a box that Shakyra draws from to determine what we will be doing our next major outing."
The duo's activities frequently take them onboard Dahlgren. "We take advantage of the activities provided at NSF Dahlgren such as the movie theater, racquetball, basketball, the pool, the school park and the bowling alley," said Smith. "The recreation director, Alice Stanton, and her staff have been very accommodating in the rentals of canoes and rowboats that Shakyra and I have used at Hideaway Pond on base. I'm sort of starting her Navy recruitment early by giving her all the positive points regarding jobs, travel, recreation and college opportunities in the Navy."
Off the installation, Smith and Shakyra recently traveled to Kings Dominion to participate in the Guinness World Record for most vampires in one setting. The pair also enjoys trips to the beach, attending the state fair and running in the King George Relay for Life.
The latter activity made an impression on Regina Price, enrollment specialist for Rappahannock Big Brothers Big Sisters. "We encourage 'Bigs' to expose their 'Littles' to other volunteer opportunities," said Price.
Of course, the best parents and mentors make educational, healthy activities fun for children. Smith not only successfully encouraged Shakyra to get good grades, but also introduced her to gymnastics. "As far as personal accomplishments, I would say the top two are Shakyra's grades. She just graduated 6th grade on the honor roll and she made the King George gymnastics team," said Smith. "We had signed her up through the Parks and Recreation [Department] gymnastics class last summer and she took beginner, intermediate and then advanced classes. Afterward, she tried out and made the gymnastics team."
Smith's introduction of gymnastics to Shakyra saw the pair attending weekly practices, an activity that often went "above and beyond" the time commitment typically undertaken by Big Brothers and Big Sisters. "[Smith] is one of those we can really count on," said Price. "We really appreciate someone so consistent and so committed to the success of a child."
Being named Big Sister of the Year came as a surprise to Smith, but not to Shakyra. "I was rather overwhelmed, very surprised and I definitely didn't see it coming," Smith said. "My little sister knew about the award and did an awesome job keeping it a secret."
Smith's passion to make a difference in the life of a child is the driving force behind her volunteer work with Rappahannock Big Brothers Big Sisters. "I really like kids a lot and enjoy being around them," she said. "So when my son left home for college, it was not a hard decision to make to volunteer as a 'Big.' I feel really blessed to have the opportunity to be a friend and mentor to my Little Sister, Shakyra. She keeps me young and on my toes! She is funny and smart with a gentle soul. Watching her grow and become more confident has been very rewarding and all the rewards are definitely worth the commitment of being there for Shakyra as her Big Sister."
Shakyra and Smith still have many activities left to accomplish. "Our next planned outing is to the DC museums," said Smith. "Shakyra crosses her fingers each time she pulls from the box hoping for the 'horseback riding' slip to be pulled."
The Rappahannock Big Brothers Big Sisters is always looking for "Bigs" who, like Smith, have the passion and commitment to help children reach their full potential. Currently, there is a critical shortage of Big Brothers.
"We are in desperate need of male 'Bigs' to mentor boys," said Price, who added that there are more than 30 boys on the waiting list for a Big Brother.
Sailors, Navy civilians, contractors and dependents who would like to volunteer their time and energy to help local children can learn more about Rappahannock Big Brother Big Sisters by calling 540-371-7444 or visiting www.rbbbs.org.