We are pleased to share guest posts by local Rochester community members throughout Women’s History Month
When I was asked by 540WMain to write a blog post for Women’s History Month, my mind immediately leapt to one of the most influential women in my life, Barbara Smullen. In 2008, when I was 26 and she was 65, I met Barbara on a social justice trip to Guatemala. What she would go on to teach me had a profound effect on the way I view the need to help our most vulnerable citizens live with dignity, and would ultimately change my life’s trajectory.
Barbara was taken to Guatemala with her family as a five year old and stayed for five years where she had a front row seat to political unrest, injustice and extreme wealth inequality. At age 46, she traveled to Honduras to accompany Salvadoran refugees over the border but they were caught and detained for a week, only to be released by the UN. During that time, she participated in a five day hunger strike. She went on to earn her Doctorate in Education and chaired the nursing department at Nazareth College all while struggling with mental health issues and stays in the psych ward. Later in life, she went back to school to earn a Masters in Divinity.
When she was only 57, this fiercely independent woman, suffered brain damage from a tragic accident and was forced to live in an assisted living facility. However, that didn’t stop her. She became an activist for improving dignity in assisted living through a program called the Eden Initiative. She traveled to conferences and held workshops. At every turn there seemed to be an insurmountable challenge, but she always strived for better and never, ever gave up.
During our friendship, we learned from each other. I inspired her to become an environmentalist and to reduce her carbon footprint and to use email and Facebook (which is quite an adventure with someone not used to technology). I even encouraged her to write a book about her incredible story. She became more aware of institutional racism through the work of Myra Brown and together we began the work of learning how to root out racism in ourselves. I helped her understand current events and she gave me historical context and wisdom. She was genuinely grateful for almost everything. We could tell each other anything (anything), without judgement. That kind of relationship is extremely rare and I am eternally grateful to have had her in my life.
Her last gift to me was in her death. It came suddenly. She was proud of herself for losing weight, but in October 2015 learned that it was actually cancer, was in five locations in her body, growing fast and that there was no treatment recommended. Her goal was to make it through Christmas. In less than three months, she lived her life and death out loud for all of us to see and learn. She moved into Isaiah House, the first two-bed hospice house in Rochester, which she had co-founded. She was the only patient to continue to live her life, going out for lunch, to church and to events. Often, I would call and find her not in, which was unheard of. She carefully planned her funeral and tagged special items with whom she wanted them to go to and why.
Myself and other close friends met weekly to share her company in candle-lit prayer circles. She journaled and talked about what she was experiencing and would speak calmly about the process of dying because she understood that it is truly a part of life. She said she felt that she was transitioning to something else, with one foot in both worlds and that life was not ending, but changing. Previously, the nurse had told Barbara to show her a sign, and when she passed at 3am on December 28th, the light in the kitchen went out and the nurse whispered, “Hello Barbara”.
I couldn’t see any of the amazing things Barbara had done or the amazing person she was when I first met her. She helped me to see that age, ability and circumstance do not define a person. Moreover, she taught me that the strength of women is often immeasurable, even when you can’t initially see it. When I’m met with challenges or obstacles in my life, I need only think of Barbara to find the courage to overcome. She was my biggest cheerleader and I know she is still cheering me on, wherever she is.