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Ready to take on the world

South Boston NewsSouth Boston News
Top, Alexus Smith, right, with a friend, standing in front of Stonehenge, one of her adventures as she studies overseas during her senior year at Hollins. Above, at Bath, England. / April 12, 2018
Halifax native and Hollins University senior Alexus Smith is a published author of short stories and poetry, a Governor-appointed advocate for the disabled and world traveler. Not bad for someone who was born with so many physical problems that doctors told the family she would never walk or talk.

Graduating 39th in a class of 400 at Halifax County High School in 2015, Smith entered Hollins University in Roanoke as an English major with a concentration in creative writing. Now a senior with a graduation date in 2019, she wants to go to attend graduate school to study for a master’s degree and a MFA in creative writing, or a Ph.D in African studies.

Awarded a Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, she will finish a semester abroad in May at the University of London, where she is studying British media and political science as well as Shakespeare. She shares the honor of this award with someone she greatly admires — Michelle Obama.

Smith says that when it comes to disabled access, London gets it right. From special lightweight ramps that can be put down and taken up easily, to bathrooms with wide doors and no sinks or baby changing shelves to bang into, to buses with lifts, Alexus said, “In London, I feel like I can go anywhere I want on my own without worry.” She points out that there is a big difference between “accessible” and “useful,” something she hopes the United States will come to understand.

Her writing career started in middle school as an intern at the News & Record, a position she held through high school. Alexus says her most memorable experience in that job was writing about retiring Halifax County High School Principal Albert Randolph, an article that appeared on the front page.

She became a published author in eighth grade, when “Lake Monster,” a short story she wrote about a young boy and his grandfather going fishing, was published in the 2012 edition of the Anthology of Short Stories of Young Americans. Thus far, Smith has written seven children’s books which she wants to have illustrated prior to publishing, and 40 poems, which she is in the process of editing.

In addition to being an accomplished writer, Smith is also a passionate advocate for people with disabilities.

As with writing, Smith’s advocacy began in middle school when, in 2013, she attended the Youth Leadership Academy at the VCU campus in Richmond. During one week that summer, Alexus learned how to write a resume, understanding disability laws and policies, goal planning, and building self-esteem. She also had the opportunity to visit the State Capitol and present testimony to lawmakers interested in disability rights.

About the same timeframe, Smith was chosen to attend the sixth annual I’m Determined Youth Summit, sponsored by the Virginia Department of Education. Youths ages 13-21 from all over Virginia met to identify approaches to successful self-advocacy, and how to lead self-determined lives.

After attending several summits, in 2015 she turned in her mentee hat and took on the role of mentor. As a mentor, she helped disabled youths to set goals, facilitate team-building exercises, and work with their peers to identify roadblocks to their own self-sufficiency.

Smith has a fine-tuned sensitivity to disability rights. For that reason, in 2017, then-Governor Terry McAuliffe appointed her to the Virginia Board for People with Disabilities, whose mission is both education and advocacy. It is also the board’s job to keep the Governor informed on disability-related issues

Smith’s drive, determination, and success can be attributed to her parents, Alex and Tanyanita, as well as her grandparents, William and Diane Johnson.

Her parents encouraged her to stay focused and push the boundaries of what Smith thought she can do. Self-pity was one emotion that was forbidden in the Smith household.

Born three months early, Smith exhibited so many physical problems, the doctor told her parents, Tanyanita and Alex, she would likely live her days in a vegetative state.

No one in the family bought that prediction for even one second, said Smith’s parents. Tanyanita talked about her first words at eleven months old: “We were looking at the lights on the Christmas tree, and Alexus pointed at the tree and said, ‘mommy — look.’ I said ‘Alexus you talked!’ And she said again, ‘mommy, look.’” Laughing, she added, “And she hasn’t stop talking since.”

Father Alex said they worried all the time about their daughter. One day, he said, not far from her fifth birthday, she said, “Don’t worry daddy, I will walk by my fifth birthday.” And she did.

For Smith her disabilities are just an annoyance — like a headache or mosquito bite — that don’t define who she is. Having physical disabilities, she said, has yet to stop her from achieving whatever it is she sets her mind to.

Talking with her on the phone, there is no hint of the disabilities (or annoyances) she must deal with due to Cerebral Palsy. For example, she is paralyzed on the right side of the body, affecting her entire body. Traumatic brain injury is a product of Cerebral Palsy, causing visual and auditory dyslexia for which she uses software tools that allow her to function normally.

Ask her about her future and she talks about publishing books, poems, and maybe a magazine targeted to disabled women of color.

A lifelong friend and honorary “Godmother,” Betty Rodenhizer, had lunch with Smith, her mother and grandmother before she left for London. Before they left, Rodenhizer, told her, “I hope I am around when you become President because you surely will.”

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