Local News

Wednesday, Jan 08 2014 08:20 PM

Graduation ends one journey, begins another

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Susan Smithwick dances with staff members of The Mission at Kern County and former graduates of its discipleship program on Wednesday, her graduation day.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Susan Smithwick recalls that "I was crying" when she first set foot on the grounds of The Mission at Kern County after being dropped off by her family to deal with her alcohol addiction. She graduated Wednesday from the one-year Christian Discipleship Program and her mentor, JoAnn Georgio, left, was there to see her.

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  3. 3 of 5

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Mary Kapalla came by bus from San Diego to attend her daughter Susan Smithwick's graduation from the discipleship program at The Mission at Kern County.

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  4. 4 of 5

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    On her graduation day, Susan Smithwick gets a hug from Claudine Burns, a member of her church at Height Street Baptist Church.

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  5. 5 of 5

    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Susan Smithwick gets a hug from Danielle Arana, left, and Kellie Hall, who came to The Mission at Kern County to do her hair and makeup on her graduation day from the yearlong discipleship program at The Mission.

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BY STEVE LEVIN Californian staff writer slevin@bakersfield.com

Susan Smithwick's class had 30 women enrolled when it began a year ago.

By the time of Wednesday's graduation ceremony from the Christian Discipleship Program at The Mission at Kern County, she was the only one left.

Wearing a green cap and gown, feted with gifts and accolades by her mother and 75 others, Smithwick's celebration was an end and a beginning.

The only reminder of her past was her 83-year-old mother, Mary Kapalla, who had ridden a bus from San Diego to attend, and introduced herself to everyone as "Susan's mom" while taking photos with a pink camera and saying over and over, "I am so proud of her."

Wednesday, there were an abundance of signs about Smithwick's future.

The first was the Bakersfield Glam Squad.

Kellie Hall, who started the squad a year ago as a way to empower women -- which she and the squad do at shelters around the city -- arrived at The Mission with a black-and-white leopard print rolling case of makeup.

She was joined by Danielle Arana, who curled and styled Smithwick's baby-fine blonde hair.

It had been six months since Smithwick had had her hair and makeup done.

Then JoAnn Georgio, Smithwick's mentor for the past three months, arrived. Georgio, a first-time volunteer at The Mission, has met with Smithwick once a week for lunch to talk about faith and making smart life choices.

"She realizes that her past has to stay behind her," Georgio said. "She knows she has to work on that every day."

Smithwick, 55, talks easily about the past, about her first drink at 16, about marrying an alcoholic, about living next door to the neighborhood bar, about being hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.

But her past also includes a decision to change. She completed Teen Challenge (which is for all ages), and then the nine-month program of discipleship called Teen Challenge Ministry, in Ventura.

There was one spot left in the Christian Life Discipleship Program, and Smithwick grabbed it.

The 12-month program requires sobriety, classes, work, church involvement, job preparation and Bible study.

Smithwick worked the program. She volunteered. She smiled. She taught. She did outreach. And she deepened her faith.

The impact of that was clear at The Mission's dining hall where graduation was held.

With music by the Beale Street Band in the background, Smithwick was hugged by teachers, volunteers, Bible study classmates, staff and other women in the program. There were three cakes and iced tea, and a slide show about her.

Carlos Baldovinos, The Mission's executive director, told her "the best is yet to come in your life."

Speaker after speaker praised her work ethic, her attitude and her leadership.

When it was Smithwick's chance to speak she focused on the future and her faith. After getting a job, she'll move into The Mission's transitional housing program for women, living in a renovated three-bedroom, two-bathroom century-old home on the grounds.

She's excited, confident and prayerful.

Anything is possible with God's help, she said.

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