by Laura Jo Brunson
Judith A.M. “Judy” Smith is not a woman easily defined. Executive. Professor. Retired Navy Commander. Wife. Mother. Grandmother. Great-grandmother. Funny. Fun. Generous. Faith-filled. Friend. While any one of those terms fails to fully define Judy, in combination they add up to servant leader – a role as natural to her as breathing.
Judy works tirelessly to improve her community, to inspire others to do the same, and to make sure others have the tools and opportunities they need to serve. In Judy’s case, it’s impossible to separate “servant” from “leader.” Her work has bettered thousands of lives throughout Jacksonville over the last two decades. Yet few of those thousands would recognize her name.
It was no love affair with Jacksonville when the Navy stationed Judy and her husband, Capt. Chet Smith (now retired), here in 1986. A year later the community formed a citizen honor guard several miles long as a tribute to the families of the sailors killed in the attack on the USS Stark during the Iran-Iraq War, and the Smiths knew that Jacksonville was home.
After retiring from military service in 1995, Judy secured her first, last and current civilian job – president and CEO of Volunteer Jacksonville. Under her leadership, Volunteer Jacksonville transitioned from a volunteer center and nonprofit resource into HandsOn Jacksonville, a proactive project management center that inspires, equips and mobilizes people to take action that changes the community. In addition, the agency strengthened Project Blueprint, its signature program that trains people how to serve on nonprofit boards. The organization has consistently ranked in the nation’s top-ten volunteer agencies under her leadership. And Judy is proud that HandsOn Jacksonville has been recognized consistently as one of the Best Places to Work in Northeast Florida by the Jacksonville Business Journal. The agency also has received the Points of Light HandsOn Network Affiliate Leadership Award and the George W. Romney Volunteer Center Excellence Award. However, under her leadership, what may be the agency’s greatest accomplishment is less obvious.
Consultant Jane Jordan, who has helped nonprofits raise more than $158 million and run more efficiently over the last 35 years, led the Volunteer Jacksonville selection committee that hired Judy. For Jordan, the discipline of a military career and Judy’s natural and abundant energy created a perfect fit.
“She made volunteering something tangible and valuable for everybody, particularly in the nonprofit sector,” Jordan said. “Volunteerism has been raised to a much higher level. There are now people who put their lives around volunteering. There are people who really value their experiences and grow from them. There are people who probably would not have left their house if they hadn’t had the kind of opportunity that HandsOn Jacksonville and Judy have given them to get out and do things they never thought they could do.”
Year after year, Judy worked to improve the organization to change the community for good through meaningful action. Jacksonville attorney and historian Doug Milne who also leads workshops on local history for leadership development programs says Judy makes good things happen.
“One of the great things about Judy – and it’s typical of people of her type – is that she knows what she has to do in society and she just does it,” he said. “She recognizes that as part of the community, she is expected to do her share without fervor and praise – just dig in and do it. That’s the servant mentality in her.”
Ed Hayes, a cross-culture consultant who had led interactive workshops on diversity for Project Blueprint (as well as other leadership development programs) for the last 20 years, sees a parallel between Jacksonville’s advancements and Judy’s impact on the community.
“Judy’s been an anchor in bridging the gap for those organizations that need assistance and can’t find it anywhere,” he said. “Then she’s been able to bridge the gap between those who are in need and those who are willing to give their resources, their time and their money to help that come about.
Judy works behind the scenes and calls the signals with no ego. It’s always about the ‘we’ with Judy. She is a true leader in serving humanity.”
In his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader,” Robert K. Greenleaf, who coined the term Servant Leadership, wrote:
“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”
To make sure she herself performs to her highest ability, Judy returned to graduate school to earn a doctorate in organizational leadership. She has taught as an adjunct professor at the university level and served on many local, regional and national boards, including the Points of Light, the largest international organization dedicated to inspiring and mobilizing volunteers; the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce Board of Governors; the International Center for Spirit at Work; the Florida Association of Volunteer Resource Management and its predecessor organization, the Florida Association of Volunteer Centers; the Volunteer Center National Network Council; the United Way Agency Directors Association; and the First Coast Women Officers Professional Association. She is a graduate of Leadership Jacksonville, and a current member of the East Arlington Rotary and the Jacksonville Women’s Network. She also has received local, regional and national recognition for her achievements.
In 2014, the Jacksonville Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women recognized Judy for her work to create a stronger community. In her acceptance remarks, Judy said she hopes everyone will realize “that all successful lives include service to others, that service bridges our differences, and that what unites us in our humanity is far more powerful than what divides us.”