Karen Smith

Supporting Youth for Three Decades

Though not a parent herself, Karen Smith has children everywhere.

A dogged volunteer and philanthropist, she has spent 30 years raising money for everything from swimming lessons to food pantries to preschool programs in southern Berkshire County.

In 1987, with the help of a core group of community members, she founded a golf tournament to raise funds for youth-oriented nonprofits. Five years later, she opened the Karebear fund at Berkshire Taconic to continue that mission in perpetuity. While the fund is a variation of her name, Karen says “it takes a village” of volunteers to make a difference in the lives of young people. A committee gathers annually to award grants that benefit children and teenagers.

“I love giving to principals’ discretionary funds because they’re on the ground in the schools,” she said. “Somebody needs soccer cleats? It’s the little things that make the effect.”

Those little things do add up. After a 15-year-old who loved poetry died of leukemia, it was Karen who built a memorial garden at the library. When a young man set on a Coast Guard career couldn’t pass the aptitude test, Karen tutored him for a year and had to testify that he hadn’t cheated when his grade shot up dramatically.

At one point, her own father questioned her work as a teacher for emotionally disturbed teens following an unpleasant encounter with several of her charges. He regularly met Karen at the airport to pick her up as she escorted students on holiday trips. After months of Karen’s life skills instructions, one of them looked her dad in the eye before their next flight, greeting him pleasantly and even complimenting his tie. Impressed, her father later made a gift of that tie.

Karen is always willing to try something new, which explains how a weekend in the Berkshires turned into a life and varied career here. After retiring, she volunteered in Kenya for a year, then co-founded the Sawa Sawa Foundation, which brings her to Africa frequently to focus on humanitarian efforts.

To Karen, building relationships is “the key for anybody wanting to do philanthropic work” to create change. It’s an approach she has mastered in her decades of service.