SANDY — “Where do we go?” a Hale Centre Theatre patron asks a woman with a dark brown bob, wearing a maroon vest over a white button down shirt.
Jessica Smith motions to her right. “You’re going to the doors at the end of the hallway,” she said with a bright grin.
Although she’s not onstage, Smith plays an important part at Hale Centre Theatre. Born with Kabuki syndrome, a rare multisystem disorder, she landed her job as a hosting staff ambassador there through the SourceAmerica Pathways to Careers program, which helps disabled people find meaningful employment.
“I make a lot of people smile when I’m working at the Hale. Work is always just fun. I talk with people and make sure no one gets into the wrong theater,” Smith, 31, said. “My supervisor will come up with more things for me to do because I’m such a fast worker.”
The supervisor who Smith keeps on her toes is Lizzy Nuttall, Hale Centre Theatre’s house manager. She said Smith is always excited to be at work and that excitement is contagious.
“Jessica adds that extra smile, enjoyment and personal touch to the theater,” she said. “She is always eager to help patrons find their way into the right theater and answer any other questions they might have.”
Although Smith specializes in answering theatergoers’ questions, as a child she left a lot of doctors scratching their heads.
Smith seemed like a typical infant to her pediatrician, but at her 6-month checkup a different doctor picked up on a strange heart rhythm. Smith was sent to Primary Children’s Hospital, which turned out to be the start of years of testing, specialists, backtracking and options.
One doctor would suggest a possible diagnosis for Smith, who was delayed with things like walking and talking. Another specialist would present a different study to her parents, but nothing seemed to fit.
“It wasn’t until she was 8 when someone suggested Kabuki syndrome,” said her mother, Rebecca Smith. “As I read about it I finally felt like, ‘This is it.’”
Smith’s life has been full of doctor's appointments, about a dozen surgeries — including heart and orthopedic surgeries — and specialized programs.
As a student in Davis School District, Smith was part of a program called STEPS, Students Transitioning for Educational and Personal Success, which assists in transitioning those with disabilities from high school to employment.
“I can’t say enough good things about Davis County Special Education. They mainstreamed her as much as possible and tried to include her in everything she wanted to be part of, including making her the assistant coach who handed out balls and towels to the girls basketball team,” Rebecca Smith said.
When Jessica Smith completed STEPS, she was on a waitlist for services at the Division of Services for People with Disabilities and was referred by them to apply for the Pathways to Careers program.
After she was selected, Jessica Smith worked with a vocational rehabilitation counselor from the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation, a program partner, in a quest to find employment.
“When we first heard about Pathways to Careers it was just beginning, and they have done an amazing job,” Rebecca Smith said. “It tries to create jobs, and they’re pretty aggressive going out to see if organizations want an intern.”
Jessica Smith held a few positions that weren’t great fits, so Pathways approached Hale Centre Theatre in 2014 to see if they would give Smith an internship — that Pathways funded — because of her passion for theater.
The experience went so well Hale brought her on the payroll as an official employee when the internship ended.
Rebecca Smith said it has been remarkable how all the organizations have gone to bat for Jessica Smith and worked together.
“It’s a great blessing,” Rebecca Smith said. “Jessie is thoroughly enjoying herself; her job is part of her identity. Whenever she finishes her shift she tells me the highlights, whether she talks with a cast member or sees a patron she knows.”
Show tunes are a big part of the Smith family’s life, especially for Jessica Smith, the youngest of six children.
“By the time Jessie was 6 months old, she’d chosen her dad to put her to bed because of his entertaining songs and the stories he would make up about her,” Rebecca Smith said.
An attorney by day, Jessica Smith’s dad, Stan Smith, is also member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and has performed in local productions.
“That’s where she got her love for theater,” Rebecca Smith said. “I love it too, but I don’t participate; I enjoy being in the audience.”
Jessica Smith is particularly excited for “Newsies” at the Hale Centre Theatre, which runs June 25-Sept. 1.
“Pretty much any musical, really, is my favorite, but I’m a huge fan of ‘Newsies.’ I loved the movie even when I was a kid. It was my first Broadway show. It is a good story,” Smith said. “When I see it at the Hale I’m going to probably lip-sync every single song. I may end up singing but hopefully not.”
In addition to seeing “Newsies” on Broadway, Jessica Smith also saw productions of it in Los Angeles, at Tuacahn Amphitheatre and at Capitol Theatre, as well as the filmed Broadway version in Las Vegas — not to mention the clips she watches on YouTube.
And while Jessica Smith spends her time at Hale Centre Theatre outside the theater doors, she is no stranger to being onstage herself, as a participant in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Nauvoo and Hill Cumorah pageants and as a cast member of the "Savior of the World" production held annually at the LDS Conference Center.
“I enjoyed being on stage. It made me feel happy; I’m always happy when I’m performing or doing anything (onstage),” she said.
As a Hale employee, Smith receives two complimentary tickets for each production and often will buy a third or fourth to bring more people.
“She especially likes going out to dinner beforehand and dressing up,” Rebecca Smith said. “She carefully plans what she’s going to wear for her theater experiences."2 comments on this story
Now that the Hale Centre Theatre resides in Sandy, getting Smith to work is a longer commute from the Smiths’ Bountiful home. But the drive is worth it for Stan and Rebecca Smith, who are grateful for the happiness and sense of purpose the job brings to their daughter.
“She truly feels like she is part of the team and that her contributions are appreciated,” Rebecca Smith said. “People go out of their way to make her feel valued as an employee.”
Not many people can say they’ve found their calling in life, but for Jessica Smith there’s no doubt.
“Everyone there is like family," she said. "I’ll probably work there for the rest of my life.”