Hard Times for Smith Foundation : Peace Organization Victim of Money Problems
The Samantha Smith Foundation, formed to encourage better relations with the Soviet Union, has fallen on hard times, a victim of money problems and, ironically, improved relations between the superpowers.
The foundation was formed in 1985 by Jane Smith, Samantha’s mother, soon after Samantha, 13, and her father died when their commuter plane crashed in Auburn, Me.
Jane Smith hoped the foundation would carry on the dreams for peace her daughter had carried to the Soviet Union in a well-publicized tour of the country in 1983.
The foundation has been involved in student exchanges, led a tour of Samantha’s schoolmates to the places Samantha visited and published a newsletter for middle-school-aged kids.
During the recent superpower summit, Jane Smith attended a weeklong conference in Moscow on student exchanges.
But the foundation has been forced to curtail a number of activities due to a chronic lack of money, and foundation officials say the organization’s future is uncertain.
“I think we are re-evaluating our role in light of our inability to raise funds,” said Judith Bielecki, the foundation’s vice president and Jane Smith’s close friend.
The foundation started with high hopes, and with a number of foundation grants that allowed for a fairly ambitious start. Samantha’s death received national news coverage, and Jane Smith received expressions of support from influential and well-known people around the world.
Olympic Marathon winner Joan Benoit Samuelson agreed to serve as one of the foundation’s directors. The advisory board included artist James Wyeth, actress Jill St. John and actor Robert Wagner, who was filming a television series, “Lime Street,” with Samantha at the time of her death.
But follow-up funds came in at a rate much slower than expected, Bielecki said. Professional fund-raisers were able to raise some money, but much of those funds paid for the services of the fund-raisers themselves.
And some potential sources of money seemed to dry up when the foundation decided to remain a Maine-based organization, rather than move its base of operations to New York or some other metropolitan center.
“Because we don’t have an endowment, (money) has been a problem from the very beginning,” Bielecki said. “When most (similar organizations) start they have a large endowment. We got start-up money, but we used it for our programs. We thought the programs would cause more funds to come rolling in, but that hasn’t happened.
"(Some contributors) thought we would be a large national organization based in New York, and they thought that, with Samantha’s name, there could be a break from some of the other peace groups, which are seen as very leftist.
“That was the incentive for the original funding we got, but when we made the decision to stay based in Maine, I think they sort of lost interest in us, or decided we were not the kind of vehicle they wanted to keep funding.”
The problems, however, have not been entirely financial.
Cold War Chill
During the early years of the Reagan Administration, relations between the two superpowers were chilly, and many cultural and trade agreements were canceled or lapsed.
Samantha’s letter to then-Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, asking what he was doing to avoid nuclear war, led to a tour of the Soviet Union at Andropov’s invitation. It was one of the few positive connections between the two countries during those years.
Since then, however, relations have thawed, and more groups in the United States are involved in student exchanges and other projects the Samantha Smith Foundation was formed to establish.
“When Sam died in 1985 there was a tremendous outpouring of emotion, and the time was really ripe to start exchanges of Soviet and American kids,” Bielecki said. “Until the Geneva summit there wasn’t the mechanism for the Soviets to send large numbers of kids to the U.S. But when Reagan and Gorbechev signed a cultural accords agreement, they renewed a lot of cultural accords that had lapsed, including youth exchanges.
“When we started the foundation in October 1985 we were one of the few organizations promoting youth exchanges, and that is no longer the case.”
Last year, the Samantha Smith Foundation sponsored a program that brought a number of Soviet teen-agers to the United States. The group toured Washington and other cities before settling in at a camp in Maine. Bielecki said the foundation hopes to sponsor additional camping trips for Soviet youth, perhaps even developing a permanent campsite for its exchange programs.
Regardless of the foundation’s future, Bielecki said Jane Smith will survive and move forward.
“Jane is a person who is used to dealing with big changes in her life,” Bielecki said. “She doesn’t wed herself to things, she has learned through experience that things don’t always work out that way. She is committed to making this work, but she is also realistic, and not so emotionally involved that she is willing to go down with a sinking ship.
“She realizes that if this is not going to be viable, the board will make that decision at the appropriate time,” she said.