Being the Change You Wish to See
Jennifer Smith, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, did not initially plan a career in state government, but as she said, “Sometimes God has plans that cannot be bargained with.”
Today, she finds herself in a dream job that fulfills her craving to “help or serve vulnerable people in the world,” and she couldn’t be happier about that opportunity.
A married mother of four, Smith grew up in Annville and graduated from Shippensburg University with a BSBA in both accounting and economics. Her family placed a great importance on community service, and her parents served as great role models with their involvement in the local community.
Although her father had worked in local government for over 40 years, Smith didn’t have big plans to work in government.
“I applied for a job at the state as a ‘back-up’ plan while I finished my college degree,” she said.
In August 2004, she took a job as an accountant in the Office of Budget, and she was hooked.
“I loved that job … and decided state government was where I needed to be,” she said.
Always having had a passion for helping others, Smith said that about four years ago, she had an urge to work in international missions through her church, but with young children at home, it wasn’t the right time.
“Little did I realize just how soon my chance would come,” she said.
In the fall of 2015, she was contacted by a friend about an opening as the deputy secretary of DDAP.
“I dismissed the idea initially, feeling inadequate to even be considered,” Smith said.
Yet within minutes of completing the interview, she “knew I wanted the job. It was my chance to do mission work right here in the U.S.”
A short 15 months later, she was asked to serve as acting secretary of the department, and in the fall of 2017, was named its secretary.
Smith agrees with the general consensus that the opioid crisis is the largest public health crisis of our generation, and states that it requires an enormous amount of resources to address. But she also points out that “we are making progress … It’s exciting to see many counties’ death numbers having dropped in 2018.”
Unfortunately, the stigma surrounding SUD (substance use disorder) is one of the biggest challenges she and her team face.
“I yearn for a day when health is health and we can talk about these diseases without distinguishing between physical, mental, and behavioral health,” she said. “What serves as a challenge for us … is the stigma associated with the use of medication-assisted treatment, which happens to be an evidence-based, gold-standard method of treatment for opioid-use disorder.”
The work is tremendously fulfilling “in the sense that we have the ability to directly impact people’s lives for the better.”
Smith also said it can be emotionally draining when she hears stories of devastation and heartache or reads an inaccurate news story about people suffering with an SUD or about the mission and progress of the agency.
“Battling the stigma around substance use disorder is a difficult fight and doesn’t stop when I leave the work building,” she said.
Smith is full of praise for her team at DDAP.
“They are dedicated and selfless,” she said. “I have employees with diverse backgrounds and viewpoints on issues … this diversity is what challenges me to see every decision from multiple angles.”
It’s also important to her that her staff receives credit for the work that’s been done, “while not placing blame when projects are unsuccessful,” she said. “I’m a firm believer that in every outcome, positive or negative, there is something to be learned.”
One example of a successful project involved the Get Help Now Helpline.
“In 2016, the Wolf Administration found a desperate need to solicit a vendor to manage Pennsylvania’s 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-per-week, 365-days-per-year Get Help Now helpline,” she said. Her department “spearheaded an accelerated bidding process and secured the department’s call center vendor in approximately three weeks, which is lightning speed for government entities.”
On Nov. 10, 2016, the toll-free helpline was launched, providing confidential referral services to those seeking treatment, as well as for their families who may be experiencing difficulties.
“We know there are more than 37,000 individuals in the commonwealth battling SUD, but the impact that the helpline has had in a short amount of time is remarkable,” Smith said.
Although she would never presume to predict what the future might bring, Smith has learned a few things in her journey to get where she is today.
“I’ve learned if you make decisions for all the right reasons, you’ll never regret it even if the outcome is unsuccessful,” she said. “And it’s important to trust others when they see potential in you, even if you don’t see it.”