Daisy Alford-Smith seemed destined for a life of mediocrity at the tender age of 18. Although she got good grades, guidance counselors encouraged her to pursue a technical career. College, they believed, simply wasn’t an option for a girl living in public housing.
But Alford-Smith wasn’t satisfied with the nurse’s aide position she landed at a local hospital after graduation — she wanted to wear the starched white uniform of a registered nurse. So she went back to high school and earned the necessary credits to enroll in nursing school while working second shift.
A semester later, she had been accepted by three institutions and saved enough money to buy a car and pay her first year’s tuition. The admissions officer for the nursing program at Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh was so impressed by what she’d accomplished that she offered her a full scholarship.
“It was just something that I knew that I needed to do for myself,” Alford-Smith says of the motivation. The experience, she adds, left her with a desire to help others realize their full potential.
“There is no position that is off-limits for any person,” she says. “Because I was able to recognize that at an earlier age, I didn’t want people to have to feel insecure about their own self-worth, what their capabilities are.”
Teaching girls not to underestimate themselves is just one of Alford-Smith’s missions as chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio, one of 112 Girl Scout councils in the United States. The Macedonia-based council — among the top councils in the country in terms of membership, according to chief operating officer Brittany Grimes Zaehringer — serves an 18-county region with more than 40,000 girls and 14,000 adult volunteers.
Since assuming the position in 2007, Alford-Smith has overseen the merger of five area councils and participated in the national re-branding of Girl Scouts as more than just “cookies, camping and crafts” by spearheading the implementation of the organization’s leadership-development programs in this region, some of which she helped design.
“She always wants to see people continue to grow,” says the 36-year-old Zaehringer, who has worked with Alford-Smith in various positions for the last eight years.
Alford-Smith’s can-do attitude developed in small-town Farrell, Pa., where she grew up the oldest of eight children born to a steelworker and housewife. By the time she was in junior high, she was taking the bus to nearby Sharon to pay the gas and electric bills and do the grocery shopping.
“I don’t think I was pushed into it by my mom or dad — I just stepped up to the plate,” she says. “I learned that at a very early age there was help needed, and we had to pitch in in whatever way we could.”
That lesson led Alford-Smith to pursue a career in public health, a field for which her intimate familiarity with the challenges of the underprivileged made her uniquely qualified.
After a 15-year stint as a family nurse practitioner in the Akron Health Department — an 8-to-4 job that gave her the time she needed to raise her three children — Alford-Smith compiled an impressive resume that included tenures as deputy director of the Ohio Department of Human Services, director of the Cleveland Department of Public Health, and assistant professor and director of Case Western Reserve University’s Center for Urban & Minority Health, a position in which she spent a semester teaching in Zimbabwe.
In 1998 she assumed the directorship of the Summit County Department of Job & Family Services, a job she took after some cajoling from the community.
“I thought, Wow! For the first time, I can really make a difference in the lives of some of these young girls who are dropping out of high school, thinking that they’ve got it made by moving into public housing and getting a cash assistance check. This is an opportunity for me to design a program for them that would assist them in becoming self-sufficient,” she recalls.
Zaehringer went to work for Alford-Smith in 2002 as a contract administrator and experienced her brand of mentoring firsthand as she slowly figured out the job. She recalls that her boss encouraged her to take on new projects and duties — work with county officials and supervise staffers, for example — even though she wasn’t always sure she was ready to handle them.
“Her attitude is, When will you ever have the chance to do something like this? Don’t stay in your comfort zone! ” Zaehringer explains. “When you’re not being everything you can be, she lets you know that, too. She’s very direct about it, but it’s instructive. She doesn’t want you to make mistakes, especially in the politics of business.”
Alford-Smith’s 2004 retirement from the department was short-lived. A few months later, she accepted a post as chief operating officer of the Commission on Graduates of Foreign Nursing Schools and the International Commission on Health Care Professions, an organization in Philadelphia that verified the credentials of foreign-educated health care professionals seeking employment in the United States.
“It was something I’d never done before,” she says.
Family obligations called her home after two years. A year later, the Girl Scouts of North East Ohio recruited her to interview for the position of CEO. Although she initially dismissed the idea as downright crazy — “On the downhill of my life, the Girl Scouts?” — she eventually reconsidered.
“Every one of my previous jobs had been reactive,” she explains. “This was the first time in my entire career that I would have an opportunity to be proactive, to start with little ones and instill in them healthy lifestyles, healthy attitudes before the fact.”
Alford-Smith is particularly passionate about the Girl Scouts’ financial-literacy program, which she calls “the foundation for self-sufficiency for any woman.” Under her direction, a hodgepodge of existing initiatives (teaching young girls how to count coins, for example) was transformed into a coherent five-course curriculum, including an entrepreneurship class and competition for older scouts.
She is also starting Women of Influence, a new program in which local businesswomen will serve as mentors for scouts. Zaehringer credits her with making the Uniquely Me! program, a partnership between the Girl Scouts and Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, available to all troops in the council’s jurisdiction. She also championed the science, technology, engineering and math curriculum expansion, and secured local funding for a Robotics League, an established Girl Scouts program in which 5-year-olds learn how to build and program a robot with a laptop computer.
Alford-Smith is equally enthusiastic about working to bring scouting programs to inner-city schools, public-housing projects and detention centers. She alone is responsible for setting up a satellite office in the YWCA on Prospect Avenue.
“Those are the types of partnerships we’re forging now that I think are really critical,” she says. They are partnerships that remind her of her beginnings. “I feel I’ve come full circle.”