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A passion to help children

David Smith, Center Point executive director

To say David Smith was surprised last month when he was honored as the Gainesville Kiwanis Club’s John W. Jacobs Youth Service Award for 2018 would be an understatement.

After all, Smith, the executive director of the nonprofit Center Point, almost didn’t attend the award ceremony.

“I didn’t know until I was there that I was getting the award,” he said.

A friend who had nominated Smith for the award, and who collected 17 letters of support on his behalf, had only called him the morning of the ceremony to tell him he needed to attend.

“He says, ‘You’re supposed to go with me tonight,’” Smith said.

So Smith went home and changed clothes, but was still in the dark.

After watching a performing arts competition and the award of a youth art scholarship to a lucky student, the youth award presenter, Charles Kelley, took the stage and started reading a brief biography of the 2018 winner.

“We award it each year to someone who shares our passion for helping youth in this community,” Kelley said. “Our recipient tonight is another example of that kind of service.”

When former places Smith lived and worked were mentioned, and then Center Point called out by name, he finally caught on to what was up.

“I started thinking, ‘Oh my god, it’s me, that has to be me.’” Smith said he was extremely humbled by the honor and grateful to be in good company with so many previous honorees.

But he also had a message for his friend who nominated him.

“I told him later, ‘What if I said I had something else to do,’” Smith said with a laugh.

Center Point, which provides mentoring, counseling, education, substance abuse prevention, works with teenage mothers and helps develop some school curriculum, was incorporated in 1967 and opened its building on the Gainesville High School campus in 1969.

The nonprofit now also has a presence in South Hall.

Smith has served as executive director since 1992.

Smith said he went to college to study business and accounting, but afterward felt a calling to work with young people, helping them identify their purpose in life.

“I really felt like God was calling me to do something more,” he added. “I really felt like I wanted to work with young people. I wanted to be on the front line.”

And Center Point is where he found the fulfillment of that calling.

“This ministry and agency has afforded me all of that,’ Smith said. “I’m able to use all of my gifts and my talents, and it is my passion.”

“It’s opportunity to connect with who they really are,” Smith said.

Smith said Center Point provides a safe place for young people and their families from all racial and socio-economic backgrounds to engage and overcome their struggles.

For students, this might mean becoming more academically sound or better behaved in the classroom. For their families, this might mean finding the counseling and mentoring support necessary to make the home a better place for students.

“So we’re trying to be there to provide support,” Smith said. “We really work with the whole family.”

Smith said he understands that everyone has ups and downs in their lives.

“I really feel like everybody is at risk at different times,” he added. “Sometimes I’m clicking and other days it’s difficult to get up.”

In the 2017 calendar year, Smith said Center Point reached about 10,000 individuals with its services, including students and their families.

Whether its ethics classes, or discussing modern issues about race, gender or gun violence, Center Point works hard to remain relevant.

“It is a challenge,” Smith said. “We have changed our mission so much” with the times. “The kids say we’re the only place where they get to talk about these things.”

And part of that mission includes allowing students to help set the agenda when it comes to Center Point’s services, Smith added.

Center Point benefits from having about 500 mentors, mostly volunteers, and partnerships with other community nonprofits and agencies to support their mission.

“We’re constantly using people in the community from other agencies and collaborations that help drive what we’re doing,” Smith said. “This is a unique community. It’s a very caring, a very philanthropic community. And this community has been really gracious to me.”

Above: David Smith has helped provide mentoring and counseling to students as the executive director of Center Point for over 20 years. Below: The Gainesville Kiwanis Club recently awarded Smith the Jacobs Youth Service Award for his work in the community. Smith sat down Thursday, March 29, to discuss his life and career in Gainesville.

Photos by DAVID BARNES | The Times

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