Mary Palmer Smith
Founder and Executive Director, Babyland Family Services Inc. • Newark, N.J.
“The ultimate measure of a [person] is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” says Mary Palmer Smith, founder and executive director of Babyland Family Services Inc., quoting Martin Luther King Jr. As a young wife and mother of four in the Scudder Homes, New Jersey’s largest public housing project at the time, Palmer Smith launched grassroots efforts to address the poor living conditions of its tenants. Now 35 years old, Babyland Family Services Inc., the product of those efforts, comprises 13 facilities, including a shelter for foster children siblings, and a domestic violence program. It also supervises 150 foster homes.
Palmer Smith received a B.S. in sociology from Rutgers University-Livingston College and an M.A. in early childhood education from Kean College, as well as honorary doctorates from Drew and Seton Hall universities. As a community activist, she learned from those around her, among them Joseph Abel Francis, the first African-American bishop in Newark. “I could not help but admire him for his struggles and his ability to stay strong in a hostile environment,” says Palmer Smith. “He often said that the individual must tap into his or her inner strength to feel good and confident when there is little or no confirmation from peers.” Such strength and commitment propelled her forward.
Palmer Smith’s numerous awards include the Pro-Ecclesia et Pontifice Award from Pope John Paul II, the highest award given by the Roman Catholic Church to a lay person. She was the first African-American woman to be so honored. She also holds the Sojourner Truth Award, the most esteemed honor from the North Jersey Unit of the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Clubs Inc. “I am proud to be an Afro-American, even though this country has yet to rid itself of racist practices in every aspect of society,” she says.