Linda Smith makes lemonade. That is, when life gives her lemons, she turns them into lemonade. Her book, Unwanted: How a Mother Learned to Turn Shame, Grief, and Fear into Purpose, Passion, and Empowerment (with the first two letters x’d out) is quite remarkable and in the end triumphant. The story begins in England, later goes to Canada and ultimately ends in Las Vegas.
According to her book, Smith’s childhood was hard, with an abusive alcoholic father, episodes of homelessness and a mother who struggled and often was absent as she worked to make a living for three children. On her own, most of her young life, Smith through an older sister, ultimately became obsessed with show business. Even as a high school student, Smith found work as a model and later as a dancer on Canada’s version of American Bandstand. That dancing job led to other work in commercials and on television.
As life went on, Smith, the dancer, model and actress, met and married another entertainer, musician Glenn Smith. The couple moved to Las Vegas and knew many of the prominent entertainers of the 60s and 70s. In particular, Wayne Newton was a friend.
And then more lemonade. Smith, then pregnant, was on a plane headed to Toronto, when her labor pains started. She ultimately made it to a Toronto hospital and the joy of a first child being born gave way to fears as she learned she had given birth to a baby boy who had Down syndrome and multiple other disabilities. Smith writes movingly about her feelings and reactions to the unexpected news. Told her son would not live long, she was advised not to get too attached to the newborn.
Defying the advice, Smith and her husband decided to care for the baby themselves and then suffered many difficulties when trying to bring the baby back to their home in Las Vegas. That problem was eventually solved with help from then Vice President Hubert Humphrey. Life with Christopher in Las Vegas finally began.
Smith admits that some days with her child were heart-wrenching. She looked for help and ultimately was introduced to a small struggling organization that provided supervision and employment for disabled adults called Opportunity Village.
“I was shocked and dismayed by what I saw when I took a tour of Opportunity Village that operated out of a small warehouse in an industrial part of town. Here were these disabled adults, these beautiful welcoming innocent souls, clustered together in a dimly lit warehouse that was cold in the winter and hot in the summer.”
“But once I got home, I protectively hugged Christopher ever closer. What I remembered most about my visit were the hugs and the welcoming smiles of all the occupants. They found joy in the camaraderie and acceptance of their peers and in performing the simplest of tasks. They were taking part in the American Dream. They had a job.”
“Those were the ingredients for giving disabled people a real life and a real purpose, but I wondered what could be done to improve the recipe. That was when I found my Las Vegas calling.”
The book then follows Smith’s involvement with Opportunity Village, its growth and the millions of dollars her fundraising efforts helped provide over the next 25 years. I had no idea that Opportunity Village wasn’t always that big complex across town with all the holiday trees and the train. I had no idea of the history of Opportunity Village. Smith’s stories of dealing with CEOs, entertainers and even with Presidents are inspiring.
You will love this book if you, too, had a troubling childhood, if you or a family you know has a disabled child, if you are a fan of the Las Vegas entertainment community, if you like Las Vegas history or if you simply like autobiographical stories.
Five stars (out of Five Stars.)