To competitors, when Lady Griz junior forward Alyssa Smith enters a game, her 6-foot frame and intense eyes indicate a fierce player. To her father, she’s his little girl and he gets choked up talking about her: the compassion he sees in her makes him a better man and her journey with the Northwest Burn Foundation has transformed her life.
Last Saturday’s game was not only against Portland State, but was also a fundraiser for a pivotal group in the Smith family’s life.
Her journey with the Northwest Burn Foundation, an organization close to the basketball star’s heart, began when she was 7-years-old. When Alyssa was a toddler, her hands were severely burned from wrist to fingertip after running them through scalding water in a bathroom sink at her daycare in Monroe, Wash. The water-heater was accidently cranked up to 140 degrees. Since, she has had total-hand skin grafts. Alyssa said it was difficult growing up because kids would question or taunt her for the way her hands looked. She would always try to hide them in sweaters. She never wore nail polish, and she never wore rings. When a firefighter who lived in her neighborhood approached her parents about the Northwest’s Camp Eyabsut in North Bend, Wash., her father Si Smith didn’t think she needed to go.
“To begin with, she was relatively confident, even before she was 7,” Si said. “I didn’t see her as a victim; I saw a beautiful, strong little girl. I guess I didn’t want her to go away from me for a week.”
At camp, Alyssa was able to meet other children who had suffered from burns. She had the opportunity to just be a kid. The camp — tucked away in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington — sits on the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River. There is no cost for those who attend the camp, and during that week they participate in outdoor activities like swimming, arts and crafts, hiking and archery.
Si said after the first camp it was obvious that his daughter had changed. Before, she had always tried to hide her hands, but after camp he saw that inhibition vanish. Seeing the way she interacted with the counselors and other campers, he knew every moment spent there was worth it. Alyssa has attended the camp for the past 13 years, the last three as a camp counselor.
Alyssa added her skills to the Montana basketball team in 2009 and decided 2012 would be the year to arrange a fundraiser for the camp. She contacted the foundation in October and began the process of coordinating
the event. At the game Saturday, volunteer firefighters were collecting money from patrons and there was a bake sale that featured baked goods from Lady Griz players.
Amber Fowler, Executive Director of the Northwest Burn Foundation, made the trip from Washington to Montana. After meeting Alyssa for the first time the night before the game, she was impressed with the young woman.
“She is one of those types of individuals that truly believe in rising above any of life’s challenges, and obviously she’s had some because of her burns, but she’s never let that stand in her way,” Fowler said. “So I think it’s really in general her personal spirit, it’s who she is as a young woman. It’s exciting to see her having been a camper at a very young age and now seeing her in her college age and where she’ll be going.”
Donations began before the general admission gates were even open, and the patrons at the game proved generous. All the money raised will go toward the camp and paying costs for the campers, and now there’s $4,700 that will help other young people who, like Alyssa, want a fun week with others they can relate to. Fowler’s expectations were only at around $1,500, and she was in awe that, even after the game, people were coming up to them and writing checks for the foundation.
Alyssa was hoping for a high number, knowing that any money raised would help. Her expectations were surpassed, and she said she was thankful for the support she got from her teammates, coaches and the fans. Already she’s thinking about and making plans for next year.
Thirteen years ago the basketball star’s eyes were opened during her first visit to Camp Eyabsut. There is a camp song that she will never forget, and she remembers the line that stood out the most from her first visit there: “It’s great to be in a place a little more like me.” During her years at camp she found a place where she felt like she wasn’t alone and didn’t worry about being judged.
“It opened my eyes and made me realize you can’t judge a book by its cover, and there are people in this world who have been through a lot worse than me,” Alyssa said. “Things happen for a reason, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today if it hadn’t happened.”