Communications specialist Emily Mills regrets not meeting tireless community worker Eva Smith, who passed away 17 years ago.
So touched was Mills by the magnitude of Smith’s extensive work in the Greater Toronto Area that she established a scholarship at her alma mater – Northern Secondary School – in 1999 just months after graduating from high school and receiving an Eva Smith bursary.
“Those funds came at the right time because I really needed it to start university,” recalls Mills who was among a few Eva Smith academic award recipients at a celebratory event at the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) to mark the bursary program’s 25th anniversary. “When I looked at where it was coming from and Eva’s impressive body of work in this community, I knew I had to do something to give back to a student in the same way that she looked out for me and other young people.”
The Northern Secondary School Triumph award is presented annually to a graduating student who overcame challenges.
“That’s the most I can do to show my appreciation to Eva Smith,” said Mills of the award. “I very much believe in the spirit of giving back.”
A graduate of York and Ryerson universities, Mills is a senior communications officer at CBC. Previously, she was an assistant diversity producer at CTV News.
Aisha Wickham-Thomas received her bursary just three months before Smith died of cancer on December 30, 1993 at age 70.
“She was too ill at the time to attend the awards ceremony,” recalled Wickham-Thomas. The bursary helped to fund her first year at Ryerson University where she graduated with a Radio & TV Arts degree and it also inspired her to become an active volunteer with the Eva Smith Achievement Association where she met her husband, Basil Thomas, Smith’s nephew.
Wickham-Thomas also volunteered with the African Canadian Heritage Association’s Saturday morning mentoring program and taught an introductory broadcasting course at Centennial College’s Centre for Creative Communications before founding Ngoma Productions that specializes in, among other things, event planning and business plan development.
First-year University of Toronto student Nikisha Campbell was this year’s award recipient.
“I volunteer with the Markham YMCA child support program and am doing other community work that I know Eva Smith would be proud of,” said the St. Augustine Catholic High School graduate who aspires to become a medical doctor.
A postal clerk and American-trained dental technician, Smith migrated to Canada from Jamaica in 1956 through the Caribbean Domestic Scheme program. After completing her contract, the mother of two and Ryerson University part-time student became a counsellor with the then North York Board of Education. She also co-founded the North York Emergency Home for Youth in 1987.
Concerned about the high drop-out rate of Black high school students, Smith organized workshops and seminars and worked tirelessly with parents to facilitate their understanding of the Canadian school system.
“She was worried about young people not staying in school and getting a good education and was doing things to prevent it way back then,” said her husband of 35 years, Bermudan-born Edward Smith who came to Canada in 1950 at attend high school. “She was always away from home doing things for the benefit of the community. She was an active lady.
“When people would ask Eva why she has to do everything, her response was always, ‘If I don’t do it, who will’? It was in her nature to want to work for the upliftment of the community, especially young people.”
As recognition of her enormous contribution to community outreach, the then city of North York named its first community youth shelter Eva’s Place. It was opened in June 1994.