Dwight Smith's Quest to Empower Children Through Words

Peter Tonguette

When is the last time you thought about how best to embody a word?

My Special Word co-founder Dwight Smith frequently asks young people to think about the words they use to describe themselves. In fact, when the Dublin resident introduces his program to children, he peppers them with questions.

After selecting a word they feel defines them—say, smart or caring—children explain their choice as well as how they express it in everyday life. “The fourth question is, ‘What can we do to help you become that very special person that you aspire to be?’” Smith, 63, says. “That’s simple, but it’s impactful.”

Smith, chairman and CEO of the technology services company Sophisticated Systems Inc., developed the nonprofit My Special Word with his wife, Renee, with the idea that language could be a change agent: If young people associate themselves with a positive word they can claim as their own, good outcomes can follow.

Where does your interest in working with young people come from?

When I was young, like maybe 20, 25 years old, I prayed the following prayer: “Lord, you have blessed me. What would you have me do with the talent and the opportunities that you have given me?” The answer, as clear as I’m talking to you, was, “Help my children.” There are a lot of causes to fight for—a cure for cancer, injustice, aging, domestic violence—but, for me, from the time I was in my early 20s, it was always on my heart to support and love children.

Get top reads, event recommendations, guides, parenting trends and more ideas for family fun. Subscribe to Columbus Parent’s weekly newsletter, The Bulletin.

Can you make a difference when you teach positivity and self-esteem at a young age?

I often say, “Catch ’em early, love ’em lots.” People say … “Our children are failing,” and I say, “No, they’re not.” We, as adults, sometimes we fail our children. Our children are awesome, and you think about all this divided society today—a lot of people talking about racism and anxiety. Think about this: Racism, hatred, all those negative things [are] learned behavior. You’re not born with that. If you put children on a playground—black, white, pink, purple, rich, poor—they’ll play. Give them a ball, they’ll pass it. They’ll get on the swings until an adult says, “You can’t play with that person—they’re different.”

It sounds like you live this out in your own life.

I gave a talk on My Special Word at the London Correctional Institution with a group of inmates a couple years ago. I said to this group of tough guys, “Would any of you like to share your special word?” One guy said, “Yeah, my special word would be change.” He said, “You see, I’m different than I was when I came in here.” Every man in that room went around the room, emotionally, and said, “Yeah, if I had a word, this would be my word.”

How do you reach kids through My Special Word?

Alison Green Myers, who’s part of the Highlights [for Children magazine] family, just fell in love with the concept and introduced it to the school district up in Honesdale [Pennsylvania]. … We also partnered with the Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based mentoring program, because they’re looking for activities to connect the mentors and the mentees. We partnered with the KIPP [Columbus] school, and just other schools that have come to us now over time.

As things go digital, it’s really interesting. … We hired a consultant to come up with 30 age-appropriate exercises for kids that they can do online in a few minutes to reinforce their special word and to allow them to celebrate.

Educators are saying, “We are concerned about history and math and science, but right now, during this virus, during this isolation, during all these other things, our kids want to be heard, they want to be talked with, not talked to, and they want to be celebrated.”

How many children have you reached?

We used to give them wristbands, and what I can tell you is we’ve given out somewhere close to 15,000 wristbands. Here’s why it’s difficult to measure: I’ll get a call from someone who says, “Hey, my kid was telling me about My Special Word, and so we went and introduced it to their class.” We never know the leverage.

Are you ever surprised that something as simple as having a word can translate into deep purpose and thinking?

If this was real complicated and there was an eight-step process and you had to go through a survey and logical exam, it wouldn’t work. … We’ve got pictures of kids in Kenya. We’ve got a story from someone in Australia. We’ve got pictures of kids, years ago, in Vietnam with their wristbands on, standing in front of a blackboard with words like “awesome” on the blackboard.

A shorter version of thisQ&A appears in the Winter 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.

Dwight Smith