Genelle Smith, Wellspring’s newest executive director and the director of the Women’s Wellness Program, radiates energy. She has the rare capacity to elevate and illuminate others to feel accepted and loved.
Genelle’s office is soft, homey and full of inspiration to love and heal. It is adorned with pottery and art gifted to her by Wellspring’s guests, beloved books – including many children’s books – and cherished quotes.
“What is really extraordinary about Genelle is that she takes each person as they are with their fullness,” Diana, a guest at Wellspring, said.
Genelle has been a social worker for more than 20 years. In addition to her work at Wellspring, she is a consultant, supervises social workers for Yolo County and teaches in the social work division at California State University, Sacramento.
Over her career, Genelle has learned that love is the only solution to problems she regularly confronts as a social worker, including mental illness, poverty, violence, abuse, trauma, pain and social injustice.
“I agree with Dorothy Day [an activist and journalist who founded the Catholic Worker Movement] that love is the only solution so I think that the answer to every problem has to be love and that is what the program is about,” she said. “The more I teach it, the more I practice it and the more I see that yes, it does work. Love works. It is the only thing that heals and we can have lots of tools to help manage stress, but healing takes love. Love is what I receive at Wellspring and try to give – that’s the thing about love, it has to flow.”
“I think that the word love is scary for people,” Genelle said. “I think that it has become so limited because we only think of it in one way. We think of it as this really small love between two people instead of this big love shared not only between humans, but this planet and all of the creatures that are on it.”
An advocate for people who are marginalized, she helps Wellspring’s guests sift through their emotions, their pain as well as their joy.
From the moment she enters Wellspring, Genelle is steeped in her work.
“She just isn’t blocked,” said Missy Kinder, Wellspring’s Art of Being coordinator said. “She lets the work and her emotions run through her freely.”.
“She is an angel,” said Brianna, a Wellspring guest.
“When we first met Genelle, we thought she was a goody-two-shoes,” said Elena, another guest at Wellspring. “She was so skinny, we didn’t think she would stand at chance at dealing with us and our problems. She proved herself to us. She is tough. We love her so much.”
Genelle is responsible for many changes in Wellspring’s programing – both practical and spiritual.
Gone from Wellspring’s menu are the dubious doughnuts and pastries — replaced with a healthy mix of fresh fruit, salads, oatmeal, non-sugar cereal, yogurt and toast. She brings in nursing students to administer health screenings, has reorganized the center’s storage system and revamped its records system for donations.
On a daily basis, she distributes diabetes test strip supplies to guests, is a case manager, a therapist and facilitates Art of Being’s intensive, expressive therapy program — her own creation. Regularly, she supervises social work interns at Wellspring who have greatly expanded the Wellspring’s capacity to serve its guests.
She hands out bus passes to guests three times a week and plans many of the center celebrations.
“At Wellspring, being the executive director is really being executive connector,” she said. “I get to have an even greater role in making connections and creating linkages of love with guest, volunteers, donors, and our community. It is a great privilege and honor to be a conduit for Wellspring’s mission.”
What does caring for Wellspring’s guests mean to you?
“It means bearing witness to their challenges and their struggles with open-heartedness and trying to see clearly what they are needing and what they are wanting,” Genelle said. “Trying to convey to them that those needs and wants are important and that they matter – that they haven’t done anything that means that they will be rejected or turned away. That there is a place that they can come and where they can be themselves. That often means that they have worth beyond anything that they can produce and I think that is a challenging piece to convey in a very capitalistic society where people are always given the message that their worth is about what they can produce.”
Genelle has always been attune to the need for more mercy and love in our world.
“I remember experiences as a child and all the way through my development just having compassion and mercy for people and wanting to love them,” Genelle said. “That was just part of the experience – just going, oh you need love. Even if it is something as silly as seeing someone bullied on the playground and just going over to them and wanting to love them and hug them because that is the answer to the pain. I think that energy has always been with me. I went into social work because I wanted to help. Ultimately, caring for people is what you do. Caring is a softer way of saying loving.”
Genelle’s Art of Being creation offers a drop-in craft club, art workshops and an intensive, expressive art therapy program. The Sacramento Food Bank and Family Service granted Wellspring money in 2009 to start the Arts program.
“I spent over a year designing the program in my head – contemplating, thinking, researching and so the bare-bones foundation of it came from that, including the name,” she said. “The rest of it came together through experimentation while putting together the programming.”
Genelle has a photographic memory and can easily pull quotes from texts off the top of her head while conducting the Art of Being’s intensive, expressive therapy program or teaching class.
“I am a forever student – a voracious reader and consumer of podcasts and videos,” Genelle added. “Somehow I have managed to have a brain that can retain information and not everyone has a brain where they can intellectualize and take in information and just sort of bring it all together and remember like my brain likes to do.”
Some of the materials that Genelle and Missy use in the intensive expressive therapy program include music that Genelle has collected over the years, a meditation gong, a stockpile of glitter, watercolors, clay, chalk pastels and more simply, pencils and writing paper.
More than 145 women have been through the program — a number that may seems small, but is large in scope. The healing that occurs in these women’s lives often out-pours into the community through their relationships with their family and friends.
“The whole point of Art of Being is being – not creating, not producing and not even the activity of it,” Genelle said.
“Beingness,”Genelle added, “is about the quality of intention and energy that is brought to the present moment by any single human being that is unique to themselves. It includes life energy, life force and for me that has a tangible way of showing up in the world. All life has a beingness to it.”
Program participants take a survey measuring their self-compassion. And after they experience the program, participants have statistically significant gains in self-compassion.
“No one explains how to be loving,” Genelle said. “They think that you will somehow just pick it up through osmosis or something. They think that there is some way that you just know how to do it”
How do you think that Wellspring helps the community?
“People need a community,” she said. “They need to belong. They need to feel that their beingness is important beyond what they can produce. … We live in an age of loneliness where people are crying out for connection.”
How do you think that has changed our guests’ lives?
“The way that community benefits individuals is based on this need that we all have for connection and if we have connection, then we flourish,” Genelle said. “We do better. The guests who’ve come have done better – I don’t mean financially better, I don’t mean you know that they’ve somehow worked their way up to the middle class better. I just mean that they themselves have been better. They’ve had an increased sense of wellness which is why they come back. They correlate it even if they are not saying it. They understand that being here helps them. And that’s community and that is connection.”
Can you talk a little about the dynamic between the volunteers and the guests?
“If there is no community, there is no diversity,” she said. “We try to create community out of like-minded people and that makes us feel safe, but I think that diversity is good and the more diversity we have, the greater we actually are together. … There is just so much fear about difference and I think that the more that you expose yourself to it, you recognize that diversity is in of itself an answer to the fear.”
How has Wellspring impacted you?
“It has made me feel more like myself,” she said. “As a community social worker, you become a part of the community.”
This blog post was written by Corey Rodda. Corey is a former Vista Volunteer of Wellspring and has continued to volunteer for Wellspring in many wonderful ways.