Remembering Freda Smith
By Deb Genthner
In 2005, on my first day as a New Hampshire Leadership Series trainee, I met Freda Smith. She told her daughter’s story and I cried. Her daughter, Janet, was sent to the Laconia State School when Freda became sick and could no longer give her daughter the care she needed. This could have been my son’s story.
When Freda was well enough to visit Janet at school, she quickly learned the living arrangements were difficult for all and unlivable for many. She pushed for improvements and when that didn’t work, she advocated for the school to be shut down altogether. Janet was a named plaintiff in the landmark case Garrity, et al., which resulted in a dramatic reduction in the number of people housed at the Laconia State School and which directly lead to New Hampshire becoming the first state in the nation to close our only institution for people with developmental disabilities. When the case went to trial, Freda never missed a day in the court room.
When I think about tough times and hard-to-win situations, I think about Freda. She rallied and organized people across the state to create policy change and better the lives of her daughter, her family, and others with disabilities. She was a mother who fought for something she believed in— and she won.
Freda promised to live to 200 so she could share her daughter’s story and ensure no one would ever forget that there was once a place called the Laconia State School and Training Center. For over 25 years, each entering class of the IOD’s NH Leadership Series spent their first session with Freda. She worked for decades as a champion for education, social justice, and civil rights for citizens with disabilities and their families. Freda Smith’s work ensured that children with disabilities and their family members would be supported, have good lives, and be welcomed as members of their communities.
Deborah Genthner is the coordinator of the NH Leadership Series.