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Carol Smelley.

CAROL SMELLEY

HER PAST SUCCESS IN INVOLVING CHURCH AND BUSINESS LEADERS TAKES HER TO THE TASK AT HAND -- AN OASIS FROM THE STRESS OF TODAY'S ILLS

Walking with Carol Burns Smelley on the rustic grounds of the new, non-profit center she has founded it is difficult to connect this calm, thoughtful woman with the image of dynamic motivator, high-profile fundraiser and tenacious non-profit director that follows her.

Seated at a picnic table overlooking a lake, she appears to have all the time in the world -- only admitting on parting that she is headed for two speaking engagements that night.

For Smelley, that is a sure sign that the philosophy of the new center, aptly named the Oasis Renewal Center, is working.

"Our dream is that this 41 acres," she says with a sweep of her arm, "will be a quiet place, a meditative setting where we can consider our inner lives, who we really are."

Those who have followed Smelley's pursuit of an earlier dream to serve troubled youth that resulted in her founding the non-profit agency, Youth Home, are confident about the new venture.

As Youth Home grew, so did Smelley's reputation among Little Rock's largest charitable givers. Her ability to enlist their aid, not just their names on a check, is legendary; for Smelley, they came out of their board rooms to don T-shirts and pour cokes and draft their friends in the cause.

Ed Wright Jr., a Little Rock attorney and long-time Youth Home board member, offers his explanation of the success of Youth Home, and it speaks volumes about its founder. "The organization just evolved as Carol and God intended. It is as it should be."

It is that kind of endorsement that followed Smelley and a group of Little Rock leaders as they recently announced the establishment of the Oasis Renewal Center, dedicated to personal and spiritual growth. Smelley returns to the non-profit sector after a hiatus of five years to serve as director.

In 1984, Smelley surprised the non-profit and business communities by leaving the organization she had dreamed of starting from childhood. Under her leadership, an initial $8,000 in community donations for a home for six troubled youth grew to a $2 million budget that year, and supported 10 homes serving almost 100 youth, delivering outpatient programs and sponsoring foster care, managing five business and approximately 75 employees.

While others questioned Youth Home's viability without Smelley's charismatic leadership, the board fully supported her decision to leave. Wright calls the time a period of difficult adjustment, but adds "As usual Carol was right. We have weathered the transition, and we are certainly moving forward as an agency and as a board."

Smelley clearly had no doubts about the decision and is delighted with the progress of the agency, which last month dedicated two new homes for emotionally disturbed children on Colonel Glenn Road and announced a new fund drive for a $1 million youth center that will bear her name.

"Every day there was a full 24-hour day, and I loved it, and I guess I could have stayed there until I died or been carried out on a stretcher.

"But I feel that people often stay too long, in government or churches or business. Freshness is needed, and it's healthy. I didn't want to be that little old white hired lady that everybody has to work around."

Although Smelley and the board prepared for her departure and she remained two months after formally announcing her leaving, Smelley says she was very careful to sever the association as completely as possible, feeling that she needed to "cut the cord 100 percent."

This was in the interest of supporting new leadership, she says, but also because she herself was ready to assess her own professional future.

To appreciate the magnitude of Smelley's decision to leave Youth Home, it is necessary to understand her role in the development of residential facilities for troubled youth in Arkansas.

"What you have to remember," she explains, "is that back in those days [the late '50s and early '60s], there was ` no concept, really, of a troubled youth, an emotionally-disturbed youth, and the only residential centers were the so-called training schools for youth who had gotten in trouble with the law."

Smelley's love of working with youth goes back to her upbringing in Jonesboro, where she remembers helping her mother serve the under-privileged in an informal settlement house that offered food, a library and other aid.

She was also an active member of First Baptist Church there, and along with her youth group became involved with a mission that church had established in a poor rural area.

By the time she left home, Smelley knew that she wanted to work with troubled youth, and after graduating from Baylor University at age 20, she consciously chose jobs that would prepare her for service in that field. She was a teacher, a church youth director, and Baptist Student Union director at then-Arkansas State Teachers College.

She left Arkansas to earn her master's degree in social work at Columbia University in New York City. During that time, she was able to work in her first residential treatment center and to do research on centers around the country, which revealed how little Arkansas had available.

Fired up by her research, she even wrote home to Winthrop Rockefeller (then just a civic-minded cattle rancher and transplanted Arkansan) and asked him: "What are you doing for troubled adolescents in Arkansas?"

Rockefeller gave the letter to Mary McLeod, who maintained much of his charitable interests, and McLeod stayed in touch with her.

Contacts of that caliber led to her being offered a position as superintendent of the Girl's Training School at Alexander. Accepting what had been for her a call out of the blue, she stayed two years, serving under Gov. Orval Faubus and getting her baptism in politics under the tutelage of pros like the late Paul Van Dalsem, the colorful Perry County legislator.

Working out of an office-bedroom on the property with a budget of $5 per day per girl (the figure was $1.48 at the Negro Boys School), Smelley says she knew she was seeing what shouldn't be done in the way of residential facilities for youth.

She had also made enormous progress in educating the local community to the needs of youth, according to Marion Lyon, wife of Frank Lyon Sr., the founder of the Frank Lyon Co. Lyon met Smelley as she went around from church to church, civic club to civic club, trying to improve the support for the Girls Training School.

"I heard her speak at my church and she was very impressive," recalls Lyon. "The thing that really got me and, I guess, has kept me involved the past 25 years, was having her tell how badly she needed volunteers, but saying: `Don't do it if you can't stay with it. These girls have had too much change already.'"

When Smelley's resignation from the training school was announced, she immediately received a call from the Rev. Bill Fogleman, then the pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, who invited her to a meeting of people interested in seeing her work continue. Smelley laughingly says, "They thought I'd been fired, especially since I didn't know what I was to do next. I decided it was time to just get up on my soap box and tell them how I thought it ought to be."

A second, larger meeting out of that first one produced a task force of about 10 people who had caught Smelley's vision of a residential treatment center, and pledged themselves to stick with it. That began an era of what Smelley describes as "lots and lots of little meetings" in which, with a little funding through the interest of Jeanette Rockefeller and the Mental Health Association of Arkansas among others, Smelley continued to spread the word about the needs of troubled youth. She also worked part-time as the first teacher of social work at then-Little Rock University.

Slowly, interest built and finally after hearing Smelley speak, the West Little Rock Rotary Club agreed to promote the project as a district effort.

In 1967, after nearly two years of promotion and a decision close at hand on starting the Youth Home, Smelley was to see one of many presentations bear unexpected fruit. Her talk to a local Lions Club introduced her to a charming banker named Wes Smelley.

"I was already in my early 30s," she says, "and I'd always assumed I'd never be able to divide my interest in my work with marriage. But I was wrong. I knew here was a person who was independent enough to let me be independent as well."

Lyon recalls that Smelley's involvement with the Youth Home concept was so complete that she even discussed her marital decision with the committee. "Of course, we approved and so we were lucky enough to get Wes as well as Carol."

In 1968, with $8,000 of an anticipated $20,000 initial budget collected, a group met at the home of Carl Rosenbaum and made the decision to open Youth Home.

"Paul Meers bought the first house on Battery Street. Jeanette Rockefeller sent a washer and dryer. Suddenly there was furniture, and somehow the money just came," Smelley recalls matter-of-factly.

And it continued to come over the years of Smelley's tenure, along with corporate and community support and the involvement of more than 900 volunteers. It is little wonder that Smelley's decision to take her leave and listen to what she calls "the still voice of God" gave board members concern.

Tad Krug, then president of the board and an insurance executive, explains that the board never considered questioning her decision. "We knew Carol had always been guided by her prayer life. We knew that was the voice she would and should be listening to."

So with no goal in mind beyond waiting, she went home. "I had no plans," she explains, "except to respond to that voice of God that I had been hearing with increasing authority that told me it was time to be quiet, absolutely quiet, and listen.

"I knew I wanted to use the professional years I had left [she was 49 at the time] to their best purpose. What that purpose was I had no idea, but I was willing to be still and listen, however long that took."

For a year she read, cleaned, and walked the paths around the comfortable home she and her husband share out Kanis Road. She calls the year a "stripping process," especially since Wes Smelley had also left his banking position and was in professional transition as well.

"The year caused us to see where our priorities really come from -- not security of income or identity of position -- but examining where we really felt our talents lay and what God might be telling us to do."

Wes Smelley accepted a position as VP of human resources for TCBY Enterprises, and by the end of the year, Smelley felt she was ready to share some of the insights she had had. She began to offer informal workshops relating to parenting issues such as self-esteem, and gradually out of that came calls for individual counseling -- as well as the continuing demand for her services as a workshop leader and public speaker.

Once again, her days were filling up with meaningful work that she loved. She insists she would have been happy to do nothing but this the rest of her professional life, but another mission, another directive was in store, the Oasis Renewal Center.

As she worked with groups and individuals, Smelley was struck by how unprepared people are for what she calls inner living. As she writes in the Oasis brochure: "We go to school to learn to be teachers, doctors, architects, mechanics, and financial analysts, but we have no formal training for the task at which we spend the most time, living with one another and with ourselves."

She also began to feel even more strongly about the importance of solitude and meditation in the modern world. Already familiar with the approach of spiritual renewal centers that focus on helping people get away and attend to on their spiritual growth, Smelley had made an appointment to visit one of particular interest when she became aware of a spectacular piece of land available on Cooper Orbit Road near her home.

The 41 acres -- with a lake, woods, and a large residence that could be used as a lodge -- became the tangible means of her asking: "Should we undertake the project of establishing a renewal center here?"

At this point, her methods of tackling that question and following through that would culminate in the opening of The Oasis in May are what her admirers call, "Pure Carol."

First came her seeking of advice. Betty Lile had never worked with Smelley at The Youth Home, but had come to know her through Smelley's consistent caring for her as a friend. "When Carol called and told me she wanted to take me somewhere and get my reaction, I went. It was The Oasis property she was considering buying. Of course I loved it, as she knew I would."

Next came consensus. Smelley asked Lile to visit with her minister, Allen Smith of Second Presbyterian Church, about the concept, assessing whether such a center would conflict with established churches. His answer was "absolutely not."

Using much the same low-key approach, Smelley during the ensuing months would show the property to a number of influential Little Rock business leaders, churchmen and friends such as Frank Lyon, Sieg Siebert, and Ed Harvey, asking whether they liked the property, whether it was a good investment, whether they felt such a spiritual center was needed.

Frequently, the "yes" answer was accompanied by generous offers of financial support.

In addition, she sought the advice of a friend from her Baptist Student Union days, now a successful plastics manufacturer in Detroit. It was this contact, Darrell Cooper, who offered to loan at no interest the $445,000 to purchase the property.

As an option taken on the property neared expiration and a final decision was contemplated by the group Smelley now had interested in the project, she complicated her own decision about her involvement by suffering a broken neck in an automobile accident.

After returning home from the hospital in a body brace, Smelley called up a group of ministers and their wives and invited them for dinner, then called friends and asked them to prepare the food. "I was weak, I was vulnerable, and I know I could have accepted any decision made that night."

The decision was made to buy the property. As she recuperated, Smelley began to put the development of the new non-profit into action. Her first essential decision was to persuade the Louisiana Presbytery to allow the Rev. Don Campbell, who had pastored Grace Presbyterian Church here, to come up one week a month to direct programming.

Campbell was essential, she says, because he is known as a pastor to pastors and keeps The Oasis sensitive to the churches and the ministers.

In turning much of the programming over to Campbell, Smelley has retained the job of administrator. "I knew that somebody had to do it," she says. "If somebody had wanted it, I'd have been glad. In fact a huge part of me longed for that to happen because I know what is ahead."

In building her board, she called upon many associates from her days with Youth Home. Tad Krug has volunteered to raise money for prayer paths. "I'd love to work on the paths themselves, but did not have the time. Carol never tells you what to do, in fact she never really even asks you for help. she just presents her project in such a way and with such enthusiams that you get so caught up in yourself."

Smelley's pastor for many years, Dr. James Argue, explains that ability Smelley has to get others involved. "Really it is just that I have so much confidence in her. Her vision becomes my vision."

Argue says that he was surprised when Smelley left Youth Home and delighted that she has begun the Oasis. "She truly needs something that consumes her. She needs more mission than most."

Smelley fully expects to involve the corporate community in Oasis' future, principally as it demonstrates its ability to serve their needs. "In addition to the good we can do in refreshing their spirits as individuals as they come and study at the lodge or fellowship at the restaurant of meditate on the paths, we feel we can help them put spirit back into their businesses."

She feels the business and non-profit sectors have much in common that makes them vital and vibrant: "One thing that causes people to buy into a non-profit program is the spirit it shows in providing its service. It is true that non-profit businesses should be run like a business.I certainly tried to do that in Youth Home, but businesses should also be run by people who are full of spirit, and who care for one another. They will be better, more profitable businesses."

The Oasis Renewal Center, which has a newly-completed log cabin home for caretakers, the lodge for classes, and a bookstore-restaurant under construction, is completing its first series of 21 classes -- from "Merger/aquisition: An Investment Advisor's Anaylsis of Christianity" to "Talking Sense To Yourself" -- and begins its fall schedule in September.

Where will the money come from to repay the $445,000 note due in two years? Smelley jokingly tells her board: "We will pick it off the trees on the land, and there are a lot of trees."

In the meantime, observers might say that The Oasis rests squarely on the shoulders of Carol Smelley. Smelley would remind them gently but firmly that it rests on much broader shoulders than hers.
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Title Annotation:profile
Author:Steward, Dana
Publication:Arkansas Business
Article Type:Biography
Date:Aug 14, 1989
Words:3002
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