Seven Questions for Opportunity Village’s Linda Smith

The senior executive vice president on her personal connection to the cause, effective fundraising and the simplest way to give back

Photo by Krystal Ramirez

Photo by Krystal Ramirez

What would surprise locals about Opportunity Village, an organization that helps people with intellectual disabilities?

Most organizations serving this population are heavily dependent on the government for support. We are the reverse of that model. We are 80 percent self-funded. We reach out, and we have a wide swath of support from people in the community. We try to engage everybody. Also, we work hard. You go into the employment training center, you see people working throughout the Valley. The Henderson campus is the home of our document-destruction and document-imaging [facility, Paper Pros.] We’re working for the community.

How did you become involved with Opportunity Village?

It started in Canada when my son Christopher was born with Down syndrome. At the time, I was an entertainer, and I was married to an entertainer. We were traveling around the United States. We found out that [Chris] needed a special visa. I wouldn’t take Chris out of the U.S. for fear that I couldn’t get him back in. So we ended up living in Las Vegas. That’s when I became aware of Opportunity Village … I volunteered as a fundraiser [for five years], and they asked me if I would do it as a profession. That was  30 years ago. I haven’t looked back since.

What has given you the most pride about your work?

I’m proud that I’ve raised more than $200 million. For an old dancer, for someone who wasn’t destined for success, I feel good about what I’ve been able to accomplish. I’ve built all the campuses, raised all the money for them.

Any memorable moments from all that fundraising?

When Chris was 4 years old, I was a volunteer at Opportunity Village and managed to get an appointment with [philanthropist Ralph Engelstadt, who owned Imperial Palace]. Chris was with me and when we got on the elevator, there was a man with a broom in his hand and I asked him, “How do I get to Ralph Engelstadt’s office?” He said, “Oh, you just get on the elevator and go up to the top floor. Here, I’ll take you.” So he pushed the top floor [button] and when the elevator opened, he said, “It’s right in there.” Then he followed me, and that was Mr. Engelstadt …

[Opportunity Village board members and I] briefly discussed asking the Engelstadt Family Foundation for $21 million. But as I sat in the office, I got this feeling that the foundation board members and trustees were very touched by what we were striving to do. On an impulse, I asked for $25 million and got it. That sort of goes down in the annals of fundraising—don’t change direction on an encounter of that magnitude. But I could just sense this kindness and this wanting to make a difference. It was a magical moment in my life.

Opportunity Village runs two recurring holiday fundraisers, the Magical Forest and the Las Vegas Great Santa Run. What’s the history there?

Magical Forest started 25 years ago. [It was just] a straw bale and a few lights that blew over every time a slight breeze came. I remember calling my mother and saying, “Can you make cookies? I think I can sell them.” I made hot chocolate. We raised $3,000 that first year. It was just this little thing. Then last year it made more than $2 million. From that small idea.

With the Santa Run [started in 2005], I had this idea that in Las Vegas, people would dress up as Santa Claus, not Elvis. [Laughs.] Then it would evolve into a real challenge and we would win it.

If someone were to give Opportunity Village $50 million today, what would top the priority list?

That would be really wonderful. That would secure the future for the next 60 years and beyond. We need to secure this most amazing organization that’s remarkable and life changing for people around the world, and it cannot unravel. It’s too important for our community, what it’s doing for the people and the families that we serve. For the volunteers. For the companies that feel good when they participate. Fifty million dollars, to me, would endow the future forever. Not just for Opportunity Village, but for this entire movement.

What are the easiest ways to support Opportunity Village?

Everyone has something to give. If it’s not a cash contribution, it’s time, volunteering. You can form a team in the Santa Run, and you can get pledges. You can donate to our thrift store. If you’re a company, you can provide work for people with disabilities. More than anything, everyone can participate in looking at the people we serve as human beings who deserve a smile. Kindness is gold.

Las vegas Great Santa Run

Dec. 5, Downtown, 8 a.m. registration, 10 a.m. 5K run. 

Magical Forest

Through Jan. 3, 6300 W. Oakey Blvd., $12 adults, $10 children 3-12, 5:30-9 p.m. Sun-Thu, 5:30-10 p.m.

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