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Imagine What Can Happen in a Generation: Meet the Smith Family

JP Alumni Fellow Dana Smith’s children know the effort it took for her to complete college as a single mom. Today, her oldest is a college junior, and her two teens are college-bound.

Left to right: Ethan, Natalie, Dana, and Charlotte Smith

It’s amazing what can happen in a generation.

Dana Smith grew up in a family led by a single mother who struggled financially. Dana believed that a college degree would change her trajectory, so she made it her mission to earn one. Halfway through her college career at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, she herself became a single mother — but her new role didn’t stop her dream. Fueled by her determination to build a better life for her child, Ethan, she juggled coursework, part-time employment, and parenthood. In 2004, she fulfilled her dream of graduating with her degree.

Today, Dana is a senior director of marketing and communications and a 2023-2024 JP Alumni Fellow who is advocating for the needs of other single mothers. She is also mom to three children with big plans of their own.

Ethan, who is halfway through his own college career at Iowa State University, is planning a career in finance. He’s interested in how money functions as a resource and looks forward to providing for his family someday, just as his mother has provided for him and his sisters.

Charlotte, who just graduated from high school, is taking a gap year as an au pair in Spain before enrolling at the University of Tampa in the fall of 2025. She dreams of helping families as a lawyer someday.

Natalie, who just completed her freshman year in high school and is considering attending either the University of Notre Dame or Creighton University, has her sights set on a career in dermatology.

Dana’s hard work and commitment to creating a beautiful life for her family have paid off, and it’s clear that her children are following in her footsteps.

Education First

All three of Dana’s children agree that education has been their mother’s top priority. “She’s always like, ‘Don’t worry about the cost of college. Just take all your opportunities,’” Charlotte remembers. “And she’s very big on the education you want, studying what you want to study. You can never have too much education, and I love that.”

But it’s not just Dana’s words; her actions compel all three children to take their education seriously. “The story about her raising my brother while doing college is actually really inspiring to me,” says Natalie, the youngest, “because when I just don’t want to do my homework or I’m not really trying hard in school, I just kinda think about that, and it makes me more grateful for my education and motivates me to do better.”

Natalie admits that she hasn’t always been the most motivated student, but a combination of her mother’s gentle encouragement, her sister’s tough love, and her brother’s example have nudged her to try harder.

“From my perspective as a young man, it made me really see the value in a strong, hardworking woman like my mother. I view my mom as the strongest woman I know.”

Ethan Smith

Ethan had a similar experience when he was younger and appreciates his mother’s unconditional support. “She’s really good at exemplifying, ‘You may not be the perfect student, but that doesn’t mean that you’re still not worthy of a higher education or continuing a further career path,’” he shares. “I can definitely say that I wouldn’t be where I am without her.”

The premium Dana has placed on education is about more than hitting the books, though. She wants her children to learn about different people, places, and cultures and to explore the world. In fact, it was Dana who discovered the Spanish au pair opportunity that Charlotte is pursuing after graduation.

“I love working with kids, and from such a young age, I’ve always been so into Spanish, learning the language,” she explains. “I’m so excited to finally be able to be in that environment and just meet new people. … This is the perfect time. When else in my life can I do this?”

Charlotte also got to visit the African continent last year during a school trip. A year before that, Dana took all of her children on an unforgettable trip to Dubai, and she and Natalie joined Charlotte on her senior trip to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, this year. Ethan has globe-trotting plans, too. With his mother’s encouragement, he’ll be studying in Rome in the spring of 2025. Dana is instilling a passion for people and knowledge in her children.

“I love talking to new people and hearing about people from every walk of life and to be able to meet someone from overseas that has lived a totally different life to me,” Ethan says. “I love experiencing life, and she has definitely shown me that side of life.”

Once a JP Family, Always a JP Family

The drive to learn and excel that Dana has modeled for her children took root when she was a student — and a JP mom. In many ways, her family developed and grew at JP, and her children don’t take that lightly.

The young Smith family

“JP has really helped my mom just become stable,” Natalie reflects. “I feel like every year we just grow more, and I’m just so thankful, honestly, because without JP, who knows where we would be at right now?”

Like Natalie, Charlotte sees JP as a kind of launching point for the Smith family. Because their mother was able to obtain a degree with JP’s support, she was better able to chart her family’s future. “Without it, she wouldn’t have been able to start off, really, anything,” Charlotte says. “It was able to help her have a stable ground.”

To this day, the family stays connected to JP. Beyond Dana’s work as a JP Alumni Fellow, her children have their own touchpoints with the Minneapolis campus. While Ethan has only foggy memories of his time as a young JP kid, his participation in a recent food drive there brought back some of those memories.

“I vaguely remember the stories that she would tell me about me interacting with other kids,” he says. “That [recent visit] made a lot of stuff click for me. … I think very fondly of JP.”

Charlotte volunteers with the campus, including making it her senior service project. She sometimes invites Natalie to join her, and they both adore working with the children in the Child Development Center.

“It is so fun. I love the kids,” Charlotte beams. “I love all the other volunteers and all the staff there, and they’re all just so fun and so nice. … I love everyone I’ve met through Jeremiah Program.”

Imagine What Can Happen in a Generation

Dana continues to inspire her children, especially as they think about the futures they want to create for themselves. She was the blueprint.

“To hear about her working hard while she was trying to support me definitely made me see that hardworking nature from somebody that I looked up to,” Ethan says proudly, “and it made me kind of want to push myself like she did for me.”

Each of the kids expressed gratitude for their mother’s hard work, the love she pours into them, and the life she’s built for their family. And they recognize how JP’s impact on their mother affects their lives, too.

“I know the saying — Jeremiah Program’s two generations at a time. I love that,” Charlotte says. “I see my grandma, how she’s living, and then my mom and then us, and it’s like, ‘Whoa!’ ’cause it’s just such a difference between every generation. My mom really, really changed the game.”

At Jeremiah Program, we know that supporting single mothers means supporting their children. That’s why we’re proud to join the whole family’s journey — two generations at a time — and that’s what the second issue of Imagine is all about.

Hear directly from the college-bound children of a JP alum what their mother taught them about education. Read a Q&A with the entrepreneur daughter of one of JP’s first graduates, who earned her degree in 2000. Learn how JP is investing in the next generation through 529 accounts, tutoring, summer enrichment, and more.

Did the Smith family’s story resonate with you? A monthly gift goes further to support JP families.

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