Helping Others Make the Grade

Sitting in the maker lab at Rockford Public Library’s (RPL) Hart Interim Library, Leon Smith invokes a phrase he might have picked up from the philosophy courses he took at Rock Valley College and the University of Illinois.

“Sometimes you choose your work,” he muses. “Sometimes it chooses you.”

After retiring from the United States Air Force, Smith came home and enrolled in those philosophy courses, hoping to get into seminary. He ended up with two master’s degrees instead: one in information security and another in sports administration and management. Along the way, he worked as a substitute teacher and discovered he had a passion for sharing knowledge and ideas with others.

“I may have missed my calling as a teacher,” he says, “but it all came full circle.”

Education plays a recurring role throughout Smith’s career. He was hired by the YMCA to be a dean of students for health and physical education, teaching at-risk youth. When the funding for his program was cut, he was hired by RPL as a trainer. A year and a half later, he started running the maker lab.

“We started with one 3-D printer,” he says. “Now we have five 3-D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines, embroidering machines, a serger, a T-shirt press, a Cricut and a silhouette.”

As the maker lab grew, so did Smith’s propensity for education. He started with computer classes and helping seniors to learn the latest technologies. And, when the RPL Career Online High School program began in 2016, he was named its program manager. The program had only five spots at the start. To date, Smith has helped 35 high-school dropouts to earn their diploma and receive skills training for a number of career fields.

“I don’t care why someone dropped out of high school. I’m just here to help people get their diploma. I’ll walk with them as far as they need me to,” he says. “I believe that graduating from high school has a trickle-down effect. Once the parent gets their diploma, they’ll help their kids get one, too.”

As someone who is Rockford born and raised, Smith is proud and happy to give back to the city he loves.

“Some people from around here say, ‘I’m from Chicago,” he says. “Not me. I always say I’m from Rockford. We have problems, like any other city, but I’m proud of where I’m from.”

In addition to his work at the library, he also serves as an associate pastor at Next Level Community Church. He’s also a member of the steering committee at Transform Rockford, where he focuses on – you guessed it – adult education.

“I’m a service-minded person,” Smith says. “What centers me is helping others reach their full potential.”