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Devoted Bradford volunteer commits to helping others despite ongoing health issues

'I understand pain and that’s why I want to help'

Bradford resident Gail Smart has been volunteering in the community for over two decades and is passionate about working with seniors and helping those who are afflicted with debilitating pain.

Smart has resided in the town of Bradford for 19 years and is a single mother of four daughters (all who are adults now): April, Crystal, Stephanie, and Michelle.

When her daughters were young, Smart was a hairstylist with her own salon. But in her 30s, Smart became ill and was diagnosed with osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, limiting movement in her right hand, ultimately ending her career as a hairstylist.

“I’ve broken my spine four times,” shares Smart. “It attacks my spine – a disease that eats your bones – specifically my vertebrae. Each time part of my spine breaks, it puts me into a wheelchair."

Smart was in a wheelchair for a couple of years, unable to walk due to a pinched nerve in her spine. She had to relearn to use her right hand and was told she might not walk again. But Smart pushed through the pain and eventually regained control of her hand and learned to walk again through physiotherapy.

“My body is my boss,” explains Smart. “I just keeping trudging through the mills."

Back on her feet again, Smart was now on disability due to her disease but still wanted to help others and keep volunteering. She joined Bradford’s CHATS where she was a volunteer driver for seven years and transported seniors to doctor appointments and grocery stores.

“I’ve always loved working with seniors, that’s a big part of me!” expresses Smart.

During her years of service with CHATS, Smart received the Good Neighbour award in 2010 and 2011 from the Town of Bradford West Gwillimbury, recognizing her dedication to serving others in the community.

Unfortunately, Smart had to take a step back from CHATS when her disease took over again. But Smart perservered and continued to be a driver for seniors in need on her own time when her body was able and willing.

“I’m word of mouth now if people need help,” explains Smart. “If someone needs a ride somewhere or help with something, I’m there."

Pre-COVID, Smart often drove seniors to local Tim Hortons’ and would share a coffee over a good chat with them. She shares that seniors are her “people”, her “cup of tea”, and that many have no transportation, no family, and no one to talk to.

“I understand pain and that’s why I want to help,” shares Smart. “Their bodies hurt, and I get that."

Today, Smart is a volunteer with CrossTrainers Canada and has been helping at A Hand Up Clothing Room with their lunches and other duties to help keep the centre running.

Recently, she joined the new “Out of the Cold Café” operating out of the same facility as A Hand Up, where she is now volunteering at least three times a week.

“Anything to help people, I’m there – feeding people, helping them with research [or] looking up something for a job, finding a place to go for the night, helping them get shelters,” says Smart, adding that she purposely took on afternoon shifts so that her body and her “agree” better.

When Smart is not volunteering, she enjoys playing pickleball and square dancing which she says helps keep her limber.

“People make a big difference for me, I could sit at home or get out and do something!” exclaims Smart.

Smart endures many x-rays and takes medicine she calls “glue” that helps her keep mobile and walking, but adds that she will be back in a wheelchair again, and eventually she will have a rod surgically inserted from the top of her spine to the bottom C7 vertebrae.

“My spine will break again, we just don’t know when,” says Smart. “I pray every day that doesn’t happen yet”.

Smart asserts that she will continue to volunteer until she can no longer due to her illness. This week Smart will be celebrating her 58th birthday.

“This is my giving back, and when I need help I won’t feel bad now."