Tracy Bennett Smith is like a superhero without a cape. Since 2019, as President and CEO of Make-A-Wish Alabama,Tracy has been granting wishes of children battling life-threatening illnesses. She has dedicated much of her career to being a champion for children. She has served as Executive Director of the Alabama chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. She was CEO of KidOne Transport, a nonprofit organization that provides transportation for children and expectant mothers to necessary health care services. And before that, she worked to help people with multiple sclerosis as President of the Alabama chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. We talked to Tracy about her work with Make-A-Wish, got her advice for women in leadership and more. Meet our newest FACE of Birmingham, Tracy Bennett Smith!
Is there anything about the Make-A-Wish Foundation you want more people to know?
A wish is not just a nice thing. It is absolutely an important part of medical treatment. There’s research that shows children who receive a wish, versus children who didn’t, have a better response to their medical treatment. Wish is essential. Hope is essential. Essential is such a keyword right now. We had to continue to provide this hope and joy for these children.
People think it’s the last wish of the child. And many times, it is. But what most people don’t know is that about 80 to 85 percent of our children beat their disease or condition, and they’re able to live a wonderful life beyond it.
What drew you to Make-A-Wish Alabama?
I was drawn to the mission, of course, but also the national structure and the local structure. There are 59 chapters across the U.S., and we’re all independent. It’s the best of both worlds because we have wonderful support from our national office in Phoenix. They help us with celebrity wishes, branding, IT and financial systems. We have the expertise of our national medical committee of pediatricians from all over the U.S. that set our eligibility. So, we can completely focus on the mission at hand here on a local basis. We’re our own 501(c)(3). We have our own boards with members all from Alabama. And the money we raise goes to serve Alabama children.
How was Make-A-Wish affected by the pandemic?
We had to halt all large gatherings. We don’t do any cruises or international travel right now. Initially, it was no travel. All of the celebrity wishes have to be virtual.
Children had to rediscover their wish, but it’s been amazing how these children have pivoted. We had a little girl who wished for a greenhouse because she loved to plant. One little girl wanted a puppy. There was a teenager who wanted his truck redone. We’ve had wishes for treehouses and playhouses and things that they can continue to experience for years to come.
How did the pandemic affect your fundraising?
On the fundraising side, we’ve been so fortunate with some of our corporate partners and some of our events. Our largest event, the Trailblaze Challenge, is a hiking event. It’s like a marathon, but it’s in the mountains. People train for 12 weeks to hike 26.3 miles in one day. We’ve had record numbers of people signing up. We will raise more funds with that event than we ever have in our history.
America’s Thrift Store is one of our partners. For every bag of unused items that someone donates, America’s Thrift Store pays us 3 cents per bag, which doesn’t sound like a lot but it’s huge for our budget. During COVID everyone was cleaning out their houses, so they got a record number of donations, which turns into funds for us. The more money we have, the more wishes we can grant.
You’ve been a leader at several different organizations throughout your career. What are some of the greatest lessons you’ve learned about creating a healthy work culture?
I’ve had bad bosses, and I’ve had really good bosses. At the MS Society, the CEO I reported to was a great boss, and what I learned from him is to listen to your team and give them the benefit of the doubt. There may have been resources or training that they needed that we weren’t providing them for them to be successful. If you can create a safe environment where your team can be vulnerable, then people are more open about needing help.
What advice would you give to other women in leadership positions?
As a female leader, I think we struggle with how to lead. Sometimes we feel like we have to lead like men do. A lot of times women are quick to be more authoritarian because we feel like we have to, but I always try to encourage the women I mentor to lead with kindness. When people ask me what I attribute to my success, I think it’s that I lead with kindness and empowerment. You can be encouraging and empowering and get more and the best out of your team.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
The things that my husband and I love to do we haven’t been able to do during the pandemic. We love to entertain. We love to have friends over and cook. We love to go to the beach. We love to travel. We also love live music.
All right, rapid-fire. What are some of your favorite local live music venues?
Where did you go on your last vacation?
Pre-COVID we visited The Cove in Nassau, Bahamas. During COVID we went to the Gulf State Lodge in Orange Beach.
What is your favorite hidden gem in Birmingham?
The Garage! It’s my go-to place. We love going to The Garage and getting a sandwich and a beer and sitting out in the courtyard.
What are some of your favorite local restaurants?
What was your last best meal at a Birmingham restaurant?
Al Fresco dining at Chez Fonfon — Hamburger Fonfon with pommes frites and a French 75.
What is your favorite local boutique?
I love the clothes and jewelry section of At Home in Homewood.
What’s on your bedside table?
My journal, a handheld fan, and a glass of water.
What is your go-to birthday present to give?
What’s the best life advice you have to give?
The best advice I have to give is about being a parent. My husband and I have been married since 1989, we have a fantastic marriage, and we have two incredible children. Our oldest, who lives in Chattanooga now and went to Auburn University, is a competitive kayaker. He’s been on Team USA for the World Championship. Our daughter is an accomplished artist, and she goes to the Alabama School of Fine Arts. They’re just really cool, well-rounded kids. People ask us all the time how our children are so great. A long time ago we realized that we needed to quit saying no to our children and start saying yes and really support whatever they wanted to explore. I think that created a sense of security in our kids, and now we have these two humans that have these incredible passions.
Other than faith, family and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
Devil’s food cake, music, and a good martini every now and then.
Thank you, Tracy! All photos courtesy of Tracy Bennett Smith and Make-A-Wish Alabama.