North Port nurse and single mom overcomes troubled past; gets boost from Season of Sharing

A'Lea Smith, with her kids, Josie, 1, and Jet, 2, check out a Christmas display, complete with falling "snow", at a home in Sarasota.
A'Lea Smith, with her kids, Josie, 1, and Jet, 2, check out a Christmas display, complete with falling "snow", at a home in Sarasota.

Many years later, A’Lea Smith, 27, would look back to the point in her life when everything changed.

It would come before the six-figure salary and the crushing debt, before the haunted eyes of COVID-19 patients and her own devastating loss.

It would involve a grocery bag full of clothes, $200 in her pocket, and a Greyhound bus ride – heading south.

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Smith was a shy girl, raised by her grandfather in a small town in Georgia.

He was her mother’s dad, a hero to her, a man she called “Pap Pap.”

As long as she can remember, he was her champion, trying to protect her even on occasions she can’t recall – like the time he went after her alcoholic father who had beaten and locked her in a barn, leaving her 3-year-old body with too many switch lashings for authorities to count.

Her grandfather always told her, “You can do anything you put your mind to.”

When times get tough, there are two options, he’d say: fail or keep trying.

During the last 10 years of her grandfather’s life, when he was in and out of Intensive Care Units, the devotion shown by the nurses caught her attention.

They doted on him, treating him with compassion, even the times he turned sassy. Watching the nurses, Smith thought this was something she wanted to do with her life.

But after high school, she found herself adrift.

Hanging out with friends who drank and did drugs, Smith was the designated driver – afraid to touch booze or anything stronger, given her father’s inclinations. Depressive and anxious as a child, growing up poor with a single mother, by then she'd learned to use humor to cope, to make people laugh, so they wouldn’t pity her.

But Smith was stuck in a loop, going nowhere. A friend who had moved to Bradenton urged her to follow, before things got worse.

It was 2013, and Smith was 19 – determined to fail or keep trying..

She mowed lawns to save money. And then she bought a Greyhound bus ticket, stuffed $200 in her pocket and a few items of clothes into a plastic grocery bag – and climbed onboard.

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Staying a month on her friend’s couch in Bradenton, Smith scrambled to find a job. Soon she landed a sales position – selling vacation travel packages. The next several years, she barely slept, working around the clock, six days a week.

By the age of 21, she was making a quarter-million dollars a year. With her savings and income, she bought a house in North Port – with three bedrooms, two baths and a yard.

Two years in this job turned into three, then four and five – her dream to be a nurse fading into the past.

Then in late 2017, she became pregnant. Following her own troubled childhood, Smith relished the idea of being a mom and starting a family, to give the love she’d long wanted herself.

But in April, 2018, in her second trimester, after Smith and her boyfriend had set up a crib and a nursery – she suffered a miscarriage at 20 weeks.

Smith named the baby Zoe.

She was devastated but kept moving, immediately serving as the maid of honor in the wedding of a dear friend – plastering a happy grin on her face, telling herself she was not a quitter.

“I have to follow through,” she thought. "Things happen to you. It's how you adapt that matters."

But in the months after losing Zoe, Smith sunk into a “very dark place,” unable to seek therapy.

“I have a hard time asking for help,” she said. “I tried to bury it and deal with it as best as I could.”

But something shifted in her. Smith took stock of her life.

“Now I need to go to school,” she remembers deciding. “Zoe just kicked me in the ear.”

By that summer of July, 2018, she was enrolled and starting classes at Suncoast Technical College of Sarasota, later transferring to State College of Florida.

She worked and studied full time, pulling 12-hour shifts at Sarasota Memorial Hospital as a certified nursing assistant, or CNA. The summer of 2019, she became a Licensed Nurse Practitioner, or LPN.

By then, she had suffered a second miscarriage, this time at six weeks, and was pregnant a third time. Unable to sleep well through the third trimester, the trauma of the first miscarriage caught up to her. If she'd lost a baby at 20 weeks, she feared she could lose one at any point.

But she didn’t. In October, 2019, during a harrowing delivery in which she almost died – Smith gave birth to a healthy baby boy. They named him Jet.

Smith took 12 weeks to recover from the delivery, unsure if she could have more children. The young parents were also now saddled with thousands of dollars in medical debt for costs not covered by insurance. Once earning a quarter-million-dollar salary, she now made $40,000 a year – her savings spent on the house and college tuition.

But Smith was building her family.

Meanwhile, heading into 2020, as the pandemic was unfolding, she had taken a new job at the PAM Health Specialty Hospital of Sarasota, a long-term acute care facility.

Soon, the facility began to see COVID-19 cases – just as Smith learned she was pregnant once more. She was also starting nursing school at Galen College of Nursing.

A'Lea Smith, takes a photo of her kids, Jet, 2, and Josie, 1,  while visiting a Christmas display, complete with falling "snow", at a home in Sarasota.
A'Lea Smith, takes a photo of her kids, Jet, 2, and Josie, 1, while visiting a Christmas display, complete with falling "snow", at a home in Sarasota.

“It was very scary,” she said about the possibility of contracting COVID while pregnant or infecting Jet. “When you’re a mom, you are more scared for your kids than for yourself.”

Despite her precautions – bleaching her shoes and throwing her clothes in the washer before stepping into the house – she caught the virus anyway from her boyfriend.

She was at 20 weeks – the same point that she had lost Zoe.

While her son and boyfriend showed few or mild symptoms, Smith was exhausted and short of breath.

She and her boyfriend – an employee at PGT Custom Windows & Doors – missed two months of work, setting them further behind.

Her biggest fear, though, was the impact on her pregnancy.

in the end, they were okay. In December, 2020, in a smooth delivery, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. They named her Josie.

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Into 2021, back to her full-time nursing studies and work, Smith was entering a profession that many across the country were leaving in droves – the pressures from the pandemic exacerbating a dire shortage of nurses.

Through the pandemic, Smith was learning and adapting fast. She watched families say goodbye to loved ones through glass windows. She phoned people to relay the worst news of their lives.

“There’s never an easy way to call someone to say your loved one passed away,” she said.

She had her own experience with loss, and now what she was witnessing was staggering. She listened quietly to some, hugging others, crying with many.

For some patients, she painted their toenails or washed and braided their hair. If they were on ventilators, she was sure to make eye contact, to establish a connection.

She still recalls the first patient to code on her – a ventilated man recovering from complications from COVID-19.

She’ll never forget the look on his face before he died.

“You could see it in his eyes that he was very scared.”


A'Lea Smith, 27, graduating  this fall as a Registered Nurse from Galen College of Nursing, holding her children, Jet, 2 (left), and Jose, 1.
A'Lea Smith, 27, graduating this fall as a Registered Nurse from Galen College of Nursing, holding her children, Jet, 2 (left), and Jose, 1.

This September, Smith, not looking back since that day she boarded the bus, reached another milestone in her career – graduating as a Registered Nurse, or RN.

Along with her accomplishment came an additional emotional loss in the form of a mutually agreed-upon separation with her boyfriend.

Already in debt from medical and education bills plus the exorbitant cost of child care – $250 a week for one child alone – now more of the household expenses fell on her shoulders alone. To stay atop the bills, she worked overtime and picked up higher pay through per diem status.

But still, she felt she was drowning.

At a friend's graduation party, another friend – part of a support system she considers her new family – relayed her predicament to a fellow guest. The guest was a Sarasota school district employee.

That employee, moved by Smith’s story, sent Smith information about Season of Sharing – how it could help her and the children get out of a tough spot.

“I ugly cried,” Smith said of learning of the woman’s kind gesture. “Just the fact that someone would do that for my kids.”

She hesitated, though, to follow up.

“Someone could probably definitely use it more than I could,” she thought.

Finally, with late bills stacking up, she reached out.

Season of Sharing: Help your neighbors in need by donating now

Jim Camelo, a social worker for Sarasota schools, recalled feeling moved by Smith’s drive as he helped process the application for Season of Sharing. The $1,800 went straight to cover part of November and December’s mortgage payments, while the rest went for water and electric utilities.

Smith was grateful – the assistance getting her current on bills. She was then able to afford to buy a few Christmas gifts at Wal-Mart for Jet, now 2, and Josie, now 1. She hopes to pay down debt, and when life slows a little, to fix up her yard, to set aside a memorial place for Zoe, with fresh forget-me-not flowers every year.

Smith's not done with her education goals, now thinking ahead to a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Maybe someday she will work her way up to impact patient care through management, marshaling all she has learned so far in the pandemic.

But for now she has an exciting development on her plate: in January, she starts a new job as an RN at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Venice. She will be working in the ICU, the same type of unit in which nurses once doted on her grandfather – inspiring her path.

On her work badge, where it declares to patients, “I will treat you just as my own – “ … she completed the sentence, adding the words, "Pap Pap.”

How to help

Season of Sharing was created 21 years ago as a partnership between the Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County to get emergency funds to individuals and families on the brink of homelessness in Sarasota, Manatee, Charlotte and DeSoto counties. There are no administrative fees and no red tape – every dollar donated goes to families in need to help with rental assistance, utility bills, child care and other expenses.

Donations to Season of Sharing may be made online at, or by sending a check (payable to the Community Foundation of Sarasota County) to Attn. Season of Sharing, 2635 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34237. Contact the foundation at 941-955-3000 for more information or to request a credit card form. All donations are tax-deductible.

This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Season of Sharing helps North Port nurse & mom with rent and utilities