About 150 children and their families enjoyed the gift of a good time Saturday during an annual Easter egg hunt and Family Day Out. It was just the way Nay Smith planned it.
For more than a dozen years, Smith has organized the event to give a special treat to children. This will be her last event in Gulfport though, because she has moved out of Mississippi. She hopes someone will be able to continue the tradition.
On Saturday, the weather was perfect and parking was at a premium. Willie Locke Park was filled with vendors, tents, a smoker and grill, a bounce house and neighborhood families and friends. Music filled the air.
“I’ve been so proud of this community,” said Gulfport Councilwoman Ella Holmes-Hines, who attended the event. “It’s their support, their energy, their money and their forums.”
Holmes-Hines said Smith knows several of the children by name, and the children know they have to be on their best behavior.
“They are well aware that if Mrs. Nay hears there is a problem,” she said, “it’s going to matter.”
Many in the community consider Smith a blessing.
Smith said she was inspired to begin giving back to her community when she met Katie Booth, a legendary community organizer and civil rights activist from Gulfport, in 1995 at St. Mark United Methodist Church. Booth was sponsoring a Toys for Tots program to provide Christmas gifts for children. From that meeting, Smith said she wanted to begin a Toys for Tots program for children in her Avondale Circle community.
Booth, who was born in Gulfport in 1907, became a chemist and worked to improve children’s health and worked on treatments for sickle cell anemia. After her education in Arkansas, Booth moved to Illinois and became an active civic leader in Chicago’s West Side. After she retired, she returned to South Mississippi and remained active in her community well into her 90s. Her work to help the children in the Magnolia Grove community led the city of Gulfport to rename its Magnolia Grove Community Center the Katie Patterson Booth Community Center in her honor in 2003.
Booth advised Smith to go into her neighborhood and ask for the clothing and shoe sizes and toy wishes for all the children in each household. She gathered all the information she could.
The first year, Smith didn’t have a car so she paid someone to help her pick up the gifts from a Biloxi location. She kept the program going each year.
Smith said Booth told her she would have to reach out to help her community, saying, “If you think you are good enough to do it, go do it. You have to have the heart and you have to have the patience in order to do it.”
Giving back in Soria City
In 2000, Smith moved to a Gulfport neighborhood known as Soria City. She immediately saw a need for the community to pull together.
“I said to myself, ‘This trash in this community needs to be picked up.’”
She and other community supporters organized gatherings to encourage the area’s young people to clean up their streets. Smith and others cooked hot dogs and served drinks.
Still thinking about Booth’s advice, Smith came up with the idea for an Easter egg hunt for Soria City children.
In the beginning, Smith said, she paid for most of her events and gifts. Over the years, other groups, churches and people have made donations.
Though the Easter event started out small, it has grown and moved to progressively bigger locations. The event held Saturday featured an egg hunt for ages 1 through 12, games, prizes, refreshments and fun. The five-hour event gave children and families hours to enjoy time together.
One year, she said, she and her husband boiled and dyed more than 1,300 eggs for the hunt. She said she really enjoyed that time. Her husband has since died, but others help her prepare for the event.
Smith worked as a cook at Bayou View Middle School. When working with children, she said, compassion has to be a driving force.
“I tell people all the time, you have got to have love for the kids to do this,” she said. “It’s all about the kids.”
Support from family, friends
One of Smith’s many supporters is a relative, Chris Hall, who also works with children at a Head Start Center in Gulfport.
Hall has served as the DJ at Smith’s events.
“The kids love him and he plays the right kind of music the kids need to hear,” she said.
Hall said he has seen the community’s response at the Easter egg hunts.
“It gives the kids something to look forward to that is positive,” he said. “When we were growing up, this was our spot. We used to come here to play basketball and baseball.”
He said Smith inspires him.
“She was bringing something that was lacking in the community,” he said. “When something is good, you just want to be involved.”
God’s next mission
Smith recently moved to Missouri to be with one of her sons and his family. She came back to South Mississippi last week just to prepare for her Easter event, her last in Gulfport.
She said it is time for some “Nay Time,” but that she plans to take her charitable endeavors to her new community and is optimistic Easter egg hunts there will grow to be big events, also.
“She will miss the kids a lot,” said her friend and supporter, Dorothy McClendon. “But God has her on another mission to live with her son and his family.”
Smith said she is very thankful for the help of McClendon, a civic leader of note, on the Easter event as well as on school-supplies drives, Halloween parties and donations of fruit bags to children and fruit baskets to the elderly.
Smith learned this week Hall would like to continue her legacy.
Thrilled, Smith said she would work with him on future Easter egg hunts. “He can do it,” she said. “He has the patience and that love.”