Kevin Smith, a West Hartford native and graduate of Conard High School, was presented with an award on July 22.
By Ronni Newton
West Hartford native Kevin Smith realized his passion for volunteering even before he became a teenager, and his dedication and commitment to helping people with intellectual and developmental disabilities was recognized by the American Legion Hayes-Velhage Post 96, which presented Smith with a “Citation for Meritorious Service and Support of Special Olympics” at a ceremony at Rockledge Golf Club on July 22.
Smith, a PGA professional and the assistant golf pro at Rockledge, began working with the Unified Sports soccer, volleyball, and flag football programs when he was a middle school student at Sedgwick. Throughout his years at Conard High School, he was involved as a volunteer with the Unified Sports basketball program.
In high school he also gave up playing baseball in the spring to foster his love of golf, playing on the Conard team, and he began working at Rockledge part time when he was 15.
Smith’s two passions came together when he was hired as a full-time assistant golf pro after graduating from UConn in 2012, and he soon realized that there were golf programs for individuals with intellectual disabilities, but West Hartford residents had to go to a neighboring town to access them.
Smith petitioned local leaders to start a golf program in West Hartford, and ultimately took over as golf coach for the West Hartford Special Olympics team. His program grew from seven athletes in 2013 to more than 30 athletes today, now including individuals from other communities.
Moe Fradette, past commander of Post 96 and emcee for the July 22 ceremony, which was held in a physically-distanced format outdoors on the practice green at Rockledge, said he first learned of Smith’s work and commitment last winter when Smith, who works as a pro on Bonita Springs, FL, during the winter, wrote a letter to the Rockledge golfing community asking for support of the Special Olympics program.
Fradette, who was so impressed with Smith, reached out to Post Commander Patrick Harrell and began the process of honoring him with the citation. A key part of the American Legion’s mission is a commitment to “mentoring youth and sponsorship of wholesome programs in our communities,” as well as “advocating patriotism and honor, promoting strong national security, and continued devotion to our fellow service members and veterans.”
In past years, Smith has brought his Special Olympics athletes to charity and scramble events and has also coached in the skills division. “Over the past 5 years his program has grown to the point where one of his Connecticut golfers was selected to play in the national level in the North American Golf Classic,” Fradette said.
Smith was selected to coach Special Olympics Team USA at the 2019 World Games in Dubai. He coached and supervised 26 athletes, and was also honored to be selected to caddy for a 45-year-old female athlete from Virginia who took home a silver medal.
Smith was recently named overall local coordinator for the West Hartford Special Olympics program – responsible for all sports divisions, athletes, partners, and coaches.
Harrell, who presented the award to Smith, said that “service” is the keystone of the American Legion organization, and the foundation for its four pillars of serving the nation, veterans, community, and youth.
“The service that Kevin provides, and has continuously rendered since the sixth grade, is tightly woven into three of these pillars, as his drive and energy has contributed to the development of our youth and challenged citizens, the enrichment of ours and surrounding communities, and the betterment of our nation and way of life,” Harrell said.
Post 96 has also nominated Smith for recognition by the Legion at the state level.
Rockledge Head Golf Pro Rich Crowe noted the Smith family’s long history of involvement and dedication to service in West Hartford.
“I knew at the age of 10 at Buena Vista that you were very special,” he said to Smith, whose parents, Susan and Chris, were also in attendance.
“He really took the reins,” Crowe said of Smith’s involvement with Special Olympics, starting with West Hartford’s team and expanding to a national level.
“His devotion, the amount of dedication he puts into every one of his athletes … is really something to behold,” said Crowe.
As he accepted the honor, Smith expressed his gratitude to others. “Yes, it’s in my name, but thanks to Rich and the West Hartford community for letting me do this.” He said he is proud of how the program has evolved.
“We have never been so proud of our son as we are today,” Chris and Susan Smith said.
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