Once a week for the past six years, Earline Smith sat down with the often troubled teenagers at the Johnson Youth Center and challenged them to a game of dominoes.
The 91-year-old retired school teacher and registered nurse doesn’t remember why she started the now-beloved tradition. She just had a feeling they would enjoy it, like she did during her childhood.
“Kids at this age in particular like to figure out strategy,” Smith said. “How am I going to win this game? What do I need to do? And they’re questioning themselves and learning the game and learning to play it well.”
Smith was celebrated on Wednesday for her 21 years of service as a Johnson Youth Center volunteer. The center’s staff and youth threw a party in her honor to thank her for making a difference in their lives after she announced she would be retiring from volunteering.
Smith first began volunteering at the facility in the 1990s when she was in her 70s. The center, built in 1982, provides housing for at-risk youth in facilities for both short-term detention and long-term treatment.
“I was interested in the fact that we were developing a Juneau youth center in Juneau, which we haven’t had before,” Smith said in an interview. “And I like working with kids. I’ve been a teacher before and a nurse before, and in each instance I worked with kids, and I like to work with kids. And so my husband and I decided to come out here — and this was after I retired — decided to come out here and see if they wanted any assistance. And they did.”
Smith went to JYC once a week to assist the then-superintendent’s wife teach in the classroom.
She previously taught from 1964 to 1969 at the Wrangell Institute, a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school that has since shut down. She moved to Juneau in 1969 to become an special education specialist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Juneau after she obtained a degree in special education from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She worked there until 1990, and a year later began volunteering at JYC, she said.
Smith’s husband, William E. Smith, a commercial fisherman whom Smith met in Wrangell and who died in 2004, wanted to teach wood carving to the JYC kids.
“Except that he didn’t know that they weren’t allowed to have knives,” Smith said with a chuckle. “So he did a little painting thing ... and taught them what he knew about art.”
Smith said she kept volunteering one day a week in part because JYC was “the nicest place to volunteer.”
“(The staff) are well trained in what they do and courteous as well,” she said. “They certainly have treated me like the queen.”
The other part, she said, of course, are the children themselves. One of the best parts about volunteering, she said, was getting to know them one-on-one.
She learned what types of cookies they liked and would bring them their favorite treats.
Eventually, she started playing dominoes with them and watched how it boosted their self-esteem and confidence.
“Sometimes I let them beat me. Other times I set it up so they will beat me, depending on what seems to be necessary or needed,” Smith shared. “If some kid wants to get self-confidence by beating Miss Earline, I might set it up so that they do beat me. And sometimes, they get good enough to beat me!”
Smith added, “It’s not just a game. It teaches you how to strategize. I mean, you’ve got to use your head if you want to win that game, although you might luck out. If you use your head, you win more often.”
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.