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Victoria Smalls displays her Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo by Bob Sofaly.

Smalls surprised by award

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President honors Beaufort resident for her commitment to volunteerism 

By Tony Kukulich 

Beaufort resident Victoria Smalls, preservationist and executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, built her career around serving the Gullah Geechee communities that line the coast from North Carolina to northern Florida, but she has never limited her efforts to the responsibilities of her paid roles. 

Smalls’ dedication to volunteering in and around those communities was recognized when she recently received the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award – the highest award available as part of the President’s Volunteer Service Award (PVSA). The lifetime achievement designation denotes that Smalls completed more than 4,000 hours of volunteer service. 

“My parents always taught us that you have to be of service to mankind, ever since we were little,” Smalls said. “That’s something they instilled in all of us. It’s something that we do whether it was sharing produce we grew on our farm, or my father sharing seafood that he caught on the river with people that weren’t able or didn’t have means. Those are the examples we had from our parents.” 

It was during a March Forth program hosted by Pat Conroy Literary Center last month that Smalls was presented with her award in a ceremony that was planned without her knowledge. The program featured a conversation between Smalls and noted Gullah artist Jonathan Green. At the conclusion of a discussion about Green’s new book “Gullah Spirit: The Art of Jonathan Green,” Kim Long of the Lowcountry Rice Culture Project presented the award to Smalls.

“She said, ‘Well Victoria, we’re here to honor Jonathan, but we’re also here to honor you today.’ I was like, ‘Why?’ I had no clue. And she started to read this letter from the White House.”

Smalls sheepishly admitted that she had received an email about the award, but had only skimmed through it quickly, not fully grasping its significance.

“I was like, OK, I do remember something about a service award, but I didn’t realize it was from the President of the United States,” she said. “I didn’t read it thoroughly, and I’m ashamed to say that.”

The PVSA was created to “recognize the important role of volunteers in America’s strength and national identity.” It honors individuals whose service positively impacts communities across the nation and inspires those around them to take similar action. The PVSA features four award tiers – bronze, silver, gold and lifetime achievement. There is an increasing minimum number of volunteer hours required to qualify at each tier.

Potential PVSA recipients are nominated by a Certifying Organization (CO). Smalls’ CO was the The Lowcountry Rice Culture Project, which as she explained, is based in Charleston, led by Long and created by Green to educate people about what rice culture is and how it brought about the Gullah Geechee culture.

“They were the ones that have been following me secretly,” Smalls said. “I didn’t know. I was very surprised. They vetted me for the volunteer service award. They kind of keep track of what you’re doing.”

While Smalls has had several paid positions with organizations that serve the Gullah Geechee community, the 4,600 service hours noted in her recognition solely represent unpaid, volunteer efforts. Among her many contributions, she spent time as a volunteer at the Penn Center before accepting a paid role there. She also served as a maven for Art of Community Rural SC, an initiative for the South Carolina Arts Commission.

“During the beginning of COVID, I was able to gather some artists together – Gullah Geechee focused – and have them put together messages of building community and being safe while doing it,” Smalls explained. “We were able to use a grant to pay artists that may have been missing out on economic opportunities during the beginning of COVID. During the second grant year, we did an Arts in the Park at MLK Park on St. Helena Island with some of those very same artists, and we were able to pay them. It was an economic opportunity for the artists, but also spread the word about building community in healthy ways.”

For Long, who spearheaded Smalls’ nomination, it was her work with the Penn Center that figured heavily in the nomination.

“I’ve known Victoria for quite some time now,” Long said. “I’ve watched her evolution in different roles advocating for the Lowcountry long before she received the executive director position for the Corridor. Her advocacy was a primary driver in the nomination because the award is for civic volunteerism. Many times Victoria has held paid positions, but she’s gone above and beyond with her own personal time to serve on boards and commissions to advocate for the region. I’ve seen her do it for years. I always talk about unappointed leadership. You can take on an advocacy role without being appointed to one, and that’s what she has done on behalf of the Gullah Geechee people.”

Smalls recently moved the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor offices from John’s Island to downtown Beaufort, a move that will facilitate partnerships with organizations like the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park. Though her role there keeps her busy, it’s unlikely that her commitment to volunteering in service of the Gullah Geechee community will change.

“We’re here to be of service to one another,” Small concluded. “If we can’t do that then we’re missing something. We’re missing the opportunity to be better people, to build community. My personal mission for the past 20 years has been to be of service.”

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

 

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