*In accordance with HIPAA, all names of the children have been changed to respect their privacy
Ms. Hattie Smith-Shannon, eighty years young, has lived a life defined by bold decisions, adventure, and creativity. Her story reads like a screenplay about someone who embraced every opportunity presented, traveled the world, and gave every ounce of herself to everything she ever did.
In June 2020, she will receive the Excellence in Foster Care award from The Arc Baltimore for her service to the dozen foster children who entered her home, some for a weekend, and others well into adulthood. No matter the length of time, they have all become part of her family. She slowly recites their names one by one and begins to tell a story for each.
Her own story started in Winnsboro, South Carolina. Being the oldest of 12, she was required to help out with her brothers and sisters. She didn’t mind filling that role at all. She was clearly honing her childrearing skills at a young age. That’s why now at 80, she agreed to welcome a two-year-old boy Charles into her home even though she already was fostering a 12-year-old boy, Dante. “I love having children around. It’s just me. Why not fill my home with wonderful children.” Just like she did as a child, she encourages Dante to assist with Charles whenever possible. “He’s a huge help.”
At an early age, she struggled in school, but she found her talent when asked to perform a song entitled “can and can’t” written by her first-grade teacher to encourage her to try harder in class. She recognized how people reacted when she sang. “I got my confidence from singing and that helped me throughout my life,” Ms. Hattie proudly stated. She would perform at school assemblies and graduations and won various talent contests. Her voice won her a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, acceptance into the Julliard School in New York, and opportunities to sing with a choir in historic cathedrals in Paris. To this day, she performs as a soloist at New All Saints Catholic Church as well as fulfilling the role of Extraordinary Minister alongside Rev. Donald Sterling.
For the children who were raised in her home, both her biological and foster children, Ms. Hattie loved it when the kids started to uncover what they enjoy doing especially when she knew they could be good at it. “If I see that they have a talent, then I do everything I can to get them the help they need to grow.” Dante expressed an interest in playing the organ at church one Sunday, and the organist noticed the potential in him. Ms. Hattie immediately orchestrated lessons from the organist, and he is a natural. He even serenaded his biological mother this past Mother’s Day via Zoom. “It was lovely and touching,” said Ms. Hattie.
When asked about her, The Arc’s Licensing & Program Development Coordinator Kym-Kisha Nixon said without hesitation, “I love Ms. Hattie. She is the epitome of strength and grace. Her tenacity with helping to raise children who are not her own is remarkable.”
At 19, she traveled to DC for a job and ended up in Baltimore where she began working at Club Casino, the top supper club on Pennsylvania Ave. It was here that she developed her work ethic and desire to do more with her life as she learned the “ins and outs” of working in a restaurant. During this time, she became friends with a man who encouraged her to go to beauty school and he covered the costs for her to enroll at the Apex Beauty School. Then, she won a contest that sent her to the Institute of Cosmetology for two weeks in New York. Shortly thereafter, she opened up the highly successful Hattie’s Head Hunters on Reisterstown Rd. in a building that she now owns. She’s proud to have taught family members how to do hair and brought them into the thriving business. In addition, she repaid the man who helped fund her beauty career by providing a space for him to live above her business while he recovered from a significant health issue instead of a nursing home.
She has instilled this strength in all of her children to work hard, take pride in themselves and their efforts, and always look for ways to help and be kind to others. She makes sure that her boys always have the best manners, are dressed nicely, and are polite to those around them. It’s a simple yet important creed.
Nearly 15 years ago, she was inspired by her biological son and his wife, foster parents themselves, to look into fostering a child. She admits to questioning whether she could do it, but her son encouraged her. Her husband had passed away shortly before this time, and her business was doing great as always. She just missed being around children. She was so glad to have made this decision and would advise anyone considering it to “Be sure that you have the desire to teach kids the right way and love them as if they were your own. Be sure to have patience and understanding, and recognize that no two children are the same. Lastly, take care of yourself and always seek an education on how to best support these children.”
Lately, in between virtual school classes, Boy Scout meetings, medical appointments, piano lessons over Zoom, and preparing meals, Ms. Hattie’s wanderlust begins to surface. She dreams of where she’ll travel next having been to Paris 3 times, Hawaii, London, and Spain. “Who knows where I’ll end up,” said Ms. Hattie, “Who knows?”