Yesterday, our staff said goodbye to Robyn Smith. Robyn was, by any measure, an incredible person. By day, she was a public defender, representing many of DESK’s clients over the years. By night, she was a volunteer at DESK, right around the corner from her office in the courthouse. More than that, she was a passionate supporter of and advocate for DESK’s mission in the broader community. Robyn passed away just after Thanksgiving, when she spent the day distributing meals as part of our annual Thanksgiving for All program. She touched the lives of so many in our circle, and she will be missed dearly by our volunteers, staff, and Guests.
With help from Ashley, our volunteer coordinator, I had the honor of eulogizing Robyn with the following words at yesterday’s memorial service:
DESK is a community-based organization, so working at DESK means you get to know a lot of people in the community: clients, Guests, donors, supporters, and, of course, volunteers. And those who keep coming back, who make themselves fixtures within our walls, you get to really know them in a very personal way. And I don’t mean details about their lives per se. What I really mean is that you learn what drives them, their motivations, their passions. At a community organization like ours, you get to find out who people really are deep down, what they’re all about.
This is the best part of working at DESK.
It is also, regrettably, the hardest part. Because inevitably, we have to say goodbye.
Even our most passionate volunteers leave us at some point. It’s joyous when they leave because they’ve graduated college. And we understand when they leave to pursue a career in another state, or to start a family, or to take care of grandchildren.
But this one’s harder. It’s hard to understand why Robyn left us. Even impossible. And it hurts. A lot.
Robyn was a regular at DESK. She didn’t just captain a monthly volunteer group from her congregation; she led that group. She brought them together, imbuing the group with her own selflessness, love, and hilarity — and always with her characteristic smile, charm, and wit. Last year, she brought the group to tour our new building because she was sure that this program was something they should know about and support. Robyn understood the people around her; she could see what would interest them and get their juices flowing. She was, in this respect, a real matchmaker: pairing those in need with those who could help.
And what is a matchmaker if not a problem-solver. When it came to serving those most in need in our community, Robyn was determined to solve each problem that came before her, without hesitation. When our clients faced eviction, I’d call Robyn. And she would drop what she was doing and run up to the housing office in the courthouse. No hesitation. I’m on it, she’d say. Call you back in an hour.
Robyn was a fierce advocate for DESK’s mission. This past fall, she organized her annual food drive at the courthouse. On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Robyn came in with one measly box of canned goods and told us how disappointed she was. Undeterred and unprompted, she announced, “I can do better.” The next day, Robyn returned with a huge smile on her face and a thick envelope of cash and checks. “I went around to all my coworkers,” she said, laughing through her words, “and I bullied them into donating.” And then the next day, one day before Thanksgiving, Robyn came back again, with even more donations. She wasn’t done bullying.
The last time I saw Robyn was on Thanksgiving Day. She showed up at 8:30 in the morning to help prepare and then distribute meals. That afternoon, she was the last volunteer to leave. I said goodbye to her outside by her car, and then I walked back inside to get my belongings. When I came back out, one of our clients was waiting outside, asking if he had missed the meal service. Many of the people we serve at DESK suffer from severe mental health disorders, so as a general safety practice, we avoid being entirely alone with clients, whenever possible. So I asked the gentleman to wait for a moment while I ran back inside to throw together one more meal-to-go. When I returned, I handed him the meal, he said “thank you,” and he went on his way. Then I turned to leave. And there, sitting in her car, waiting for me and smiling, was Robyn. I said to her, “Rob, why are you still here?” “Oh,” she said, “I just wanted to make sure you were OK. I recognized that man, and I know that sometimes he can be a little out of sorts.” I’m so grateful that the last image I get to have of Robyn is her smiling face and her gentle words of fierce protection, unrelenting kindness, and empathy for those who need it most.
Robyn left a permanent imprint on many of us at DESK, and we will never forget her: Robyn’s warmth, her love, her appreciation for family, friends, and those who give of themselves to others. She understood the difficulties and dangers of the world around her intuitively, but, nevertheless, she was a true optimist and a model spirit.
It is so fitting that Robyn spent her last days organizing, leading, giving, advocating, and protecting those around her. May we all be strong enough to follow Robyn’s example and her lead.
We love you, Robyn. Thank you for allowing us to be part of your life and your story.