Shining STAR Helaine Smith
Through Education, A Way to Make a Difference and Give Back
By Bette Price
Graduated, December 2018
Texas Woman’s University
EWL gave me the confidence I need to know I belonged here, that I can still leave a mark.”
Helaine Smith’s ultimate goal is to become a lawyer so she can help victims of family abuse find a better life the way she did. She’s not quite there yet, but she’s on the final stretch with plans to take her LSAT in January of 2020. Passing that will be her ticket to acceptance into law school, her ultimate educational goal. Her journey hasn’t been easy, but what she’s accomplished so far is amazing.
As a child, Helaine suffered unimaginable abuse, to the point of near death at the hands of a stepmother, always while her father wasn’t at home. The final time involved the stepmother trying to put Helaine into hot scalding water, one of the forms of abuse that had been tried previously. “The situation was so horrendous that I mentally checked out,” Helaine said. “When I woke up I had no memories other than trying to get away from her. This happened in the morning and when I woke up, it was nighttime. I had no memory of a 13 hour span of time.”
With her father eventually home and realizing what had happened he asked Helaine where she would like to go. “I said I wanted to go to my aunts and was taken to my aunt who nursed me. I had second-degree burns over a good majority of my body. I still have a lot of memory lapses about what happened during the time I was taken care of by her.”
Helaine says she was raised at a time when children didn’t speak up. “I was raised that the adult is always right. So when I went through it [the abuse], it didn’t happen when my dad was in the home so I just didn’t say anything about it.” Fortunately, at age ten she was removed from the abusive situation and taken to her aunts.
It took many years of dealing with the after affects of her child abuse and eventually she did seek therapy. “It’s kind of like PTSD,” she said. “I didn’t want the abuse to define me nor did I want it to stop me. Once I got stronger and found myself again, my desire to protect and educate became overwhelming. So for me, the purpose of becoming an attorney is that I want to protect children. I feel that as a child I didn’t speak up. I think of myself with a gag on my mouth and not saying anything but with everything inside of me screaming, ‘this can’t be right, why am I going through this?’. I think I’m that voice of many children that don’t know how to speak up or they’re afraid no one will believe them or they’re afraid of what will happen to the adults that they tell on.”
Helaine says it’s been back and forth struggles as she has tried to achieve her goal—one she is still working on. “I feel like the child abuse I went through created a pattern which I don’t think people understand. It created a pattern of abuse with me where I was more passive. It makes you kind of a sitting duck for an abusive person because that becomes your normalcy. It becomes something that isn’t outside of the normal if it happens to you.”
As a result, Helaine went though numerous dating situations that were violent. “I was raped, I was kidnapped, and I was held at gunpoint. But I eventually got out of the situations because I think I was smart enough and the fear became stronger than the love of the man that I was with. I did love him, but I was afraid of him and that fear became the strength that I needed to get away from him.”
Helaine said she began to learn the patterns of abusive men. Once she got stronger she once again found herself with a desire to protect and educate. “I always wanted to go to college but there were so many things going on in my life. My goal was to get a degree,” so at age 52 she enrolled in Texas Woman’s University (TWU) in a pre-law program, a combination of government, criminal justice and law.
“I got a scholarship through TWU and six months later I got an email saying I qualified for this scholarship, to fill out the application.” Once she made it past that phase she had a phone interview. “I kept thinking to myself, ah, I’m not going to get it.” But then she was asked to do a face-to-face interview and during that time she was asked if she would be interested in being mentored. That was a pleasant surprise to her. “I’m 52 and I’ve never had anyone mentor me,” she said. But it was all part of the EWL scholarship and to Helaine’s delight, “They called and said I was selected.”
While the scholarship was very appreciated, it was the mentoring for Helaine that really meant a lot. “I’d really never had someone I could look up to that had the same drive and ambition that I had. So the mentoring piece meant everything to me. I was matched up with Mary O’Connor who’s been an attorney for 30 some years. She’s not very much older than me but she went to school a long, long time ago. “ The relationship made a tremendous difference to Helaine and she says that they are still friends. “She was the person that wrote my recommendation letter for me. She also knows how much I’m driven and she knows my goals. And, she’s also really been engaged with me in my LSAT studies.”
At age 54 Helaine graduated from TWU. She’s not yet in the legal field but she uses her degree to do regulatory compliance work. “I work with audit examiners and I’m not in the legal field per se but I work in compliance which is kind of in the vein of the legal field in technology.”
Unwilling to give up her dream, Helaine is currently back in school studying for an MBA in business analytics. Passing the LSAT is what determines whether she will be accepted into law school—the next step for which she is aiming.
“I never felt like I was someone who would get a degree. I thought I’d struggle with it. Probably because when I was in high school I had so many other things I struggled with. I didn’t know I was doing as well as I was until EWL. After EWL I was motivated to finish strong, and I did. I finished with all As in my last semester. EWL gave me the justification—hey, you’re smart, you’re doing something phenomenal, holding a 3.4 GPA and working a fulltime job.
“I don’t celebrate my wins enough. EWL helps me do that. “ Helaine also wanted to be sure to include just how difficult it is go to a four-year university at a later age. “That’s no small fete,” she said. “For me to go back and get over that fear, I would also say that it’s important to understand that EWL supports that and is an encouragement for that. It’s good to know that someone is honoring you for making a decision that is out of the box. You’re not a commuter you’re an adult learner. For EWL, to be that support means everything to me. EWL gave me the confidence I need to know I belonged here, that I can still leave a mark.”
There’s little doubt that Helaine Smith is leaving her mark wherever she goes and if past determination and accomplishments are any indication, she’ll likely pass that LSAT and we’ll soon be seeing her living out her dream in family court.