By the time she was 13, Anola Smith was an orphan, had lost her baby brother and her home to a fire and was living with relatives.
After experiencing so many trials at such an early age it would have been easy to give up on life, but Ms Smith, 32, who now teaches reading at George Hicks High School, exemplifies the belief that people can triumph over adversity.
Her difficulties started at age six, when her family home burned down. Young Anola and her brothers – Andrew, eight; Dean, four; and Phillip, one – were in the house alone. Their mother had left them to go buy bread. Her father wasn’t living with the family at the time.
A wayward kerosene lamp set the baby’s playpen and crib on fire.
‘My oldest brother took Dean out to get help; he got Dean out through the window since the house was locked from the outside. I stayed with the baby,’ she said.
But help arrived too late. Little Phillip died and the house burned to the ground.
Fewer than two years later, tragedy struck again when her mother was killed by a hit-and-run driver.
Ms Smith’s great aunt Eula McField took her and her two brothers in.
‘When my mother died, my aunt held on to us and wouldn’t give us to anybody. My dad still supported us; he and his siblings would check on us,’ she said.
Mrs. McField and her husband had seven of their children living with them, but cared for Ms Smith and her brothers as well as their two grandchildren.
Ms Smith’s mother grew up in similar circumstances because her own mother died when she was two. She was raised by her father, stepmother and aunts.
The hardships continued, however. At age eight, Ms Smith contracted rheumatic fever and spent about six months in the paediatric ward at Cayman Islands Hospital. She was paralysed for a week and has developed complications as a result of her illness.
Despite the trauma of that disease, Ms Smith took something very positive away from her time in the hospital. During her stay, she met someone who would become an important part of her life — Hazel Brown, who is now chief nursing officer at CIH.
‘We met in the paediatric ward. She was just out of nursing school. She’s been my one-man cheerleader for a long time.
‘When I think I cannot go on, she’s always there for me. She’s my Rock of Gibraltar,’ Ms Smith said.
The admiration is clearly mutual. Mrs. Brown speaks highly of Ms Smith.
‘What she’s accomplished I think can be quite an inspiration to other young people. I think there are lots who know her who don’t know what she’s been through.
‘I’ve used her story with my kids and any other kids I know to show what can be accomplished against all odds. It’s a testimony to the strength of her spirit,’ Mrs. Brown said.
When she left the hospital, Ms Smith remained with her aunt and uncle, but stayed in touch with her father.
‘As part of my holidays each year, my father’s cousins would take me to their home in East End for Easter. I love East End. That’s what made me a little different – being able to go there on my own, without my brothers.
‘The more people I met, the more exposure I got. I always had somewhere else to go, even though I was part of a big family,’ Ms. Smith said.
When she was 13, however, she received another blow when her father was killed in a one-man car accident.
With both parents having died on the road, getting a driver’s licence took extra effort.
‘I passed my written paper at 17 but waited another year and a half before taking my driving test. It took me a while to make up my mind,’ she said.
Ms Smith decided early on that she needed to work, however, and by 13 was a part-time bagger at Kirk Supermarket. After a year, she moved over to Foster’s Food Fair where she packed shelves, but was destined for bigger things.
‘Mr. (David) Foster taught me to cashier one night. They were short of cashiers. He came and got me off the shelves and said, ‘You should be big enough to add and take away.’
‘He showed me once and left me on my own. The first night I was $2 over in change.
‘Every Saturday I would work a double shift with him. Mornings I would pack shelves and at night I would cashier for Mr. Foster,’ she said.
Ms Smith’s life has been touched by several other well-known Caymanians.
After high school, she attended the Cayman Islands Community College to earn a business certificate. Part of the course involved getting work experience and she interned at the Public Works Department.
‘After the internship ended, Mr. Donnie (Donovan Ebanks) kept me on for the rest of the year.
‘I just jumped at the chance. I saw the opportunity to do something better with my life. I worked there until my year at community college finished. I continued working nights at Foster’s until I finished community college and then I quit to work fulltime at Public Works,’ she said.
By that time, she was living independently at a church property, sharing with a youth worker.
‘The church sent me on a youth exchange programme to Jamaica and Guyana and the following summer I went to England,’ Ms Smith said.
On these programmes, participants visited churches, and went into communities and schools volunteering and learning about different cultures, she explained.
‘My life has revolved around the church. I was baptised at 17. For me, church was the beginning and end. That’s where I found hope and encouragement; where people saw my possibilities,’ she said.
Her next job was as a teacher’s aide for a kindergarten class at Cayman Prep. She explained her decision to work at the school.
‘I needed to decide what I wanted to do, if teaching was where I wanted to be,’ she said.
After a year at Prep, she applied for a Cayman Islands government scholarship for further training abroad, but that required a year as a teacher’s aide in a government school. Ms Smith spent the next year at George Town Primary School, and then used her scholarship to attend Mico Teacher’s College in Kingston, Jamaica, for the next three years, from 1994-1997.
‘I specialised in reading and music for primary students. After 2 ½ years, my music teacher told me I couldn’t hold a note to save my life, but I still passed,’ she said.
She followed that course with a two-year honours programme for a bachelor of education in teaching and learning at Warwick University in the UK, again on government scholarship.
Her family supported all her efforts at further education.
‘The whole time I was at school, my brothers would each send me $100 a month. They did that faithfully for five years. I owe a lot to them,’ she said.
Through all the hardships, the three siblings were there for each other.
‘We would lean on each other to get by,’ explained her younger brother, Dean Morales, who has been with the fire services for 13 years. Older brother, Andrew Smith, has worked at the airport since 1988.
‘We’ve come a long way. God never gives us more than we can handle. We are grateful for what we have,’ he said.
Mr. Morales speaks highly of his sister.
‘She’s a person who believes in winning the battle she’s in. She’s not a quitter.
‘I’m blessed to have someone like her in my life. She goes that extra mile. She sits me down if I’m off track and pulls me back in line,’ he said.
Six years ago, while in the UK, Ms Smith had to deal with yet another death in the family.
‘1999 – that was a difficult year. My favourite uncle died, my mother’s brother. He helped name me. He was one of the positive male role models in my life. His death was really, really hard for me to accept because I was so close to him.
‘My dissertation was almost finished. It took a lot for me not to quit, but I made it through and I came home,’ she said.
Meanwhile, she started teaching at George Hicks High School and then moved on to George Town Primary School. Not everyone who knew her during her own school days believed in her, though.
‘When I was in John Gray High School, I applied for a two-year commonwealth scholarship to go anywhere in the world to study. Nyda Flatley, who was deputy principal at JGHS (and is now chief education officer at the Ministry of Education), signed off on the form in order for me to proceed.
‘The principal said I wasn’t academically inclined enough. They gave me an interview on my merits but he said, ‘I guess they’ll interview anybody.’
‘When I was teaching at George Hicks, he was the first inspector to walk into my class. He said, ‘I know you.’
‘I said I was the same person you said would amount to nothing.’
Ms Smith always understood the importance of an education.
‘In order to get out of the poverty that I lived in and grew up in, I knew I had to get an education. There were a lot of people who helped me in many ways and encouraged me.
‘But the one who encouraged me the most was Nurse Brown,’ she said.
After two years at George Town she was granted a Canadian commonwealth scholarship and received her Master’s of Education from Brock University in Ontario in 2003.
Ms Smith now teaches reading to eight classes at George Hicks, plus is the year eight tutor for a class of 20.
‘I think I will be here for a long time. George Hicks is where I want to be. I’m enjoying my job. I enjoy the students I’m teaching. In the last two years, I can see the difference in some of the children and it really makes me feel I’m doing something worthwhile.
‘Students who were two levels below their grade level are now at their grade level so I feel all the education and work was worth it, especially for somebody who didn’t want to be a teacher.
‘My last year in high school, I was at a job fair and I remember saying, ‘If teaching was the last job on this earth, I would not be a teacher,” she said.