Neighbors: His home is in Jacksonville, but his call to help those in need takes him around the world

“Ever since I was a young child, I just felt like God wanted me to go to places overseas, places that were tough, where people don’t normally choose to go,” said Smith. “I have visited around 80 different countries and all continents, including Antarctica. It took me all over the world.

Smith is part of a disaster response team for Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical Christian relief organization led by Franklin Graham that responds wherever there is a need, from refugee crises to natural disasters. It is called, usually on short notice, to deploy to areas of intense human suffering due to man-made or natural causes.

In early May, Smith was expecting a call that could send him to Ukraine.

“Right now the answer is Ukraine. They’ve deployed inflatable field hospitals, they can do surgeries and stuff,” Smith, 54, said. “I haven’t been there yet, but I’m available to go if they need my special skills.”

These international aid skills were developed early in life when Smith, a lifelong Jacksonville resident, and her family often traveled abroad with her father, a German professor at Illinois College. Smith then studied ministry at Oral Roberts University, hoping to go into the field of missions.

A three-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard followed. Smith served on a ship based in Alaska and then in the Pacific Northwest, helping with navigation and humanitarian aid. Several mission trips to South America followed, during which Smith became interested in Bible translation and the needs of the tribal peoples of the Amazon basin.

“One of their biggest needs at the time was medical. Someone was in a small village and got a snakebite and it took days or weeks to get them to a big hospital,” said said Smith “I had learned to fly in the Coast Guard and decided to come back and build an airplane.”

“So I got my mechanic certification and built an amphibious plane – it could land in a village and also land in a big airport,” Smith said. “It’s a kind of flying ambulance and it’s still in service.”

Smith has helped plant churches in many countries and also worked with the Red Cross, while earning a master’s degree in international community development and emergency management, as well as a master’s and doctoral degree in ministry. She speaks German and Spanish and quickly learned enough Chinese, Thai and Indonesian dialects to get by when she was sent to those areas.

“I’ve learned enough to communicate with people while I’m at it and to be able to go to the store and barter to buy what you need,” Smith said. “Also to read the signs because usually you have to stand on the side of the road and signal a bus that’s going 50 miles per hour and you have to read the sign where it’s going or you’ll go the wrong way.”

Smith’s experience and advanced credentials give her the credentials she needs to enter many countries that have strict visa requirements. She has spent quite a bit of time in China, Thailand, Central Asia and worked with refugees in Eastern Europe.

Smith is a Paid Disaster Response Team, or DART, member of Samaritan’s Purse that rapidly deploys people to wherever a crisis is brewing around the world to meet their emergency needs. But it’s not just about making sure people have food, clothes and shelter.

“My main goal is to meet their spiritual needs. I can meet your physical needs, but if there’s nothing after that, people are desperate,” Smith said. “But if we meet the two, we provide them with what they need at that time, and then we say, ‘There is a God who cares for you,’ and that gives them hope.”

Smith has many memorable experiences from her time with Samaritan’s Purse, but one of the most memorable for her was working last fall with Afghan refugees at a US military base.

“It was truly an amazing experience to hear the stories of their escape from Afghanistan, their hopes for how they will fit in in America, and how they will start over with their lives and the dreams they have,” said said Smith. “I have also had the opportunity to help prepare churches and communities across the United States to welcome or welcome an Afghan who is coming to resettle.”

Working with these Afghan refugees, who are quickly assimilated into American society, was very different from the typical refugee situations encountered by Smith. It is not uncommon for Smith to work in refugee camps where people have been stuck for five to ten years waiting to be integrated into a host country.

“It’s heartbreaking to see the situation around the world, so many people injured and displaced,” Smith said. “We hear about Ukraine, but there are people in Ethiopia, Yemen and Myanmar who are stuck in terrible civil wars. There is so much heartache in the world and so many innocent and vulnerable people who are suffering. »

Smith’s serve puts her in jeopardy at times, but “usually I don’t think about it too much and worry about it,” Smith said. “I just quickly find a way to get out of harm’s way, and that’s part of my military training.”

Smith returns home to Jacksonville after each deployment, teaching exercise classes at the Bob Freesen YMCA. She is also active at Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church. Smith is single and has no children, which frees her up for short-term travel around the world.

“There is always a little reverse culture shock when you come back. It’s been different with COVID-19 because our store aisles aren’t completely full, but that’s the norm in other parts of the world,” Smith said. “It’s a bit overwhelming. We have so many things that we take for granted.

Smith can’t imagine doing anything else with her life and trusts a higher power to guide her every day.

“I start in the morning and pray, ‘God, help me focus on what I need to do.'” Smith said. “Because it’s not about what Jennifer does, it’s about what God can do through me.”

Barry F. Howard