Debra Smith: Persistence pays off

Beth KinnaneOur Town Neighbors, West Knoxville

When Debbie Smith heard her name called as the Diana Conn Good Neighbor of the Year at the recent Neighborhood Conference, she was genuinely speechless.

“Wow, really, of all the people to be nominated, that it was me? I was just thrilled,” Smith said, adding that though it sounds cliché, it really is an honor just to be considered.

“All of the candidates were worthy, so either way I was fine with the result. It was a big deal,” she said. “I was truly shocked, I really was. I started to cry. I’m just so grateful and appreciative. I was in good company, all very deserving.”

Debra Smith with Charles Lomax, director of community empowerment for the city of Knoxville

The West Hills resident was nominated by her neighbor Hope Ealey for her contributions to the neighborhood, among them organizing regular trash clean-up. She started “Adopt A Block” to get neighbors to commit to regular clean-up of specific areas.

“I helped put a committee together to keep our neighborhood clean,” Smith said. “We get a lot of cut-through traffic, and people come through, sometimes tossing out entire bags of trash. It’s ridiculous, really. It hurts my feelings.”

Smith and her husband, Frank, own Washing Equipment of Tennessee (WET), which has recently become part of the Kelsan Corporation providing industrial cleaning equipment such as pressure washers. She has helped provide equipment for cleaning projects at West Hills Elementary, and said pressure washers are always a popular silent auction item at fundraisers.

Smith made her way to Tennessee from Indiana and Ohio, arriving here in 1989 to attend UT in pursuit of her bachelor’s in communications. She moved to West Hills eight years ago and was immediately approached to join the community association.

“I was asked the day I moved in, and I said ‘yes’ and never looked back,” she said.

Her bent toward community involvement has been a lifelong pursuit and isn’t limited to her neighborhood. She is a regular serving dinner at KARM and is very involved with KARM’s Serenity Shelter for women getting back on their feet after homelessness, rehab or leaving an abusive relationship. She particularly likes the weekly small group Bible studies.

“Many of these women come in with nothing but the clothes on their backs,” she said. “They are hungry for the word, and we’re there to help and encourage them. It fills our buckets, too.”

A member of Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church, Smith said her faith is at the center of everything she does.

“My entire life, I’ve been service oriented,” she said. “It’s really like a secondary job to me, but it is what fulfills me.”

Smith said receiving the Good Neighbor award was a “real shot in the arm,” and that “it makes you want to work that much harder. There is always more to be done.”

Where community action is concerned, her advice is to “pack your patience” and “maintain laser-focus” on goals. And don’t just show up with complaints to civic leaders. Provide them with solutions.

“I think if I’m anything I am persistent. I don’t back down easily. If I sign up for something, I’m all in,” Smith said. “I’m here to invest in people and projects, and I love every minute of it. That’s what we’re here to do. I have so much to be thankful for.”

To make a donation to Serenity Shelter go here.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for

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