Chances are if you’ve ever been involved in a project, an activity or a group with the goal of bettering the Westchester and Playa del Rey community, you’ve met Garrett Smith. His love for the community and contagious can-do attitude is exactly why the Rotary Club of Westchester is honoring him this month as their Citizen of the Year at their annual Night of Comedy fundraiser. While typically a committee chooses the honoree, this year’s selection process was much easier according to event chair and Rotarian Cindy Williams; before a committee was even formed, she had received numerous nominations for Smith citing his exemplary involvement and service to the community.
“Everyone who knows Garrett just loves him. He is one of the most deserving people in our community and there are so many things he does behind the scenes that people don’t even know about,” said Williams. “He is always there when someone needs him. You don’t even need to ask him. His desire to help just comes out of his heart.”
But just because Smith is deserving of the Citizen of the Year title doesn’t mean it was easy to get the longtime Westchester resident, who shies away from accolades and recognition, to agree to be honored. In fact, Williams even considered keeping it a secret from him until the day of the event. For Smith it seems almost silly to be honored for something that comes as second nature to him, especially when he thinks about all of the people who have come before him who have set the bar so high for community service.
“I got to thinking about people before me like Howard Drollinger and all he did for the community, and people like Earl Smith, a Rotarian and Westchester pioneer who started the Westchester Townhouse,” said Smith. “I think about all the people that do so much for so many, but for me, I’m always involved in a lot of small things. If anyone ever asks for my help, I try not to say no.”
Smith’s first brush with community service was the result of a tragedy. As an elementary school student, a friend he was riding his bike with was struck by a car and died. Smith, not wanting anyone else to get hurt on that corner, showed up at the next Bellflower City Council meeting requesting a light be installed. Due to the fact that he was not on the agenda no action could be taken for his request that day; however, a councilman pulled him aside and told him to come back to the next meeting. Thanks to Smith’s effort a light was later put up.
Smith credits his desire to give back as something that was “handed down” from his father and grandfather. Both men were active in their communities, with his grandfather serving as a volunteer firefighter and his dad raising funds to build a fire station for the small town of Graeagle, California. Even further back on the family tree, Smith’s namesake Gerrit Smith, was an abolitionist who fought for universal suffrage in the 1800s.
Since he attended his first local meeting fighting airport expansion after moving to Westchester almost forty years ago, Smith has not slowed his involvement in community issues and projects, a fact that inspires Rotarian Nora MacLellan.
“Garrett exemplifies Rotary’s motto of ‘Service Above Self.’ Whenever there is a community project in the area, you will see Garrett Smith there,” says MacLellan, who nominated Smith for this year’s honor. “He has participated every year in the homeless count. He is there beside the Rotarians and community members whenever there is a makeover project. After it rains, he is down on the beach picking up trash and always has extra bags because by picking up trash he motivates others to join him. Garrett is actively engaged with the Neighborhood Council and is consistently informed about every issue that goes on in the committee he is on. When I grow up I want to be like Garrett Smith. He has my great respect and I am proud to call him my friend.”
Over the years, Smith has worked tirelessly on big issues, such as keeping Westchester and Playa del Rey together during redistricting and fighting LAX from moving the runway, but it’s the smaller acts of anonymous kindness that give Smith the most joy. He lights up when talking about placing flags up and down Sepulveda Boulevard during the Gulf War and the time he and his daughter got up early to paint over graffiti that had vandalized Westchester Parkway the day the street opened. It may come as no surprise that he starts every year with the same resolution: do something nice for someone every day. If they find out, however, it doesn’t count and he has to start again.
Reflecting on being named Citizen of the Year, Smith is quick to point out that making the Westchester and Playa del Rey community a better place to live takes the effort of a lot of people all working towards the same goal.
“Any achievement I have is because I worked with other people,” says Smith. “It just demonstrates how good our community really is. I just love the people of Westchester and Playa del Rey.”
While Smith is happy to continue working, mostly behind the scenes, on projects that in small ways enhance the quality of life for Westchester and Playa del Rey, he hopes that others will take a cue from neighborhood leaders and pick up a garbage bag, a paintbrush or a clipboard in the name of community.
“If there is anything that I wish, it is that more people would get involved with something,” said Smith. “It’s about getting involved and staying involved. When it comes to the community, people need to get busy and stay busy.”
The Rotary Club of Westchester will honor Smith on Friday, March 18 starting at 6 p.m. at the Comedy & Magic Club in Hermosa Beach. Tickets are $100 and proceeds will benefit the club’s service projects.
For more information and to buy tickets, please contact Cindy Williams at email@example.com or (310) 568-1024 by Wednesday, March 9.
Pictured: Longtime Westchester resident, Garrett Smith, will receive the Rotary Club of Westchester’s Citizen of the Year award at the club’s March 18 fundraiser at the Comedy & Magic Club. Photo by Greg Melton.