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Destined for Service

Rebecca (Costa '08) Smith honored as 2016 Outstanding Young Alumna for her inspiring work in Haiti

Rebecca (Costa ’08) Smith was destined to serve others. Just prior to graduating from California Lutheran University with a degree in Criminal Justice, she visited Haiti for the first time. It was on that trip that she discovered her life’s purpose, but not before the some rough first steps of her journey.

“The first half of my time in Haiti was miserable during that initial visit, and I’d never been so uncomfortable,” Smith said. “I was out of my element, out of my comfort zone and I wanted to go home. An entire country was suffering in front of me but I was only concerned about myself.”

She had, in fact, considered ending her trip early. Then she visited Mother Teresa’s Orphange and Home for the Dying and everything in her world changed. She was surrounded by nearly fifty children five years of age and younger who were all terminally ill.

“The room was silent because all of the children were so sick and they didn’t have the energy to even cry,” she said. “My heart had never been broken into so many pieces. I stood there and wept uncontrollably and knew that my purpose was now clear and my heart was forever changed. My life transformed in that moment.” 

As she sat on the flight home, Smith knew she couldn’t simply return to normal life and the plan she’d made. Her journey had a new direction. Initially, she had no idea how she was going to help, but she was sure about her purpose. During six months of contemplation after graduation, she partnered with long-time friend, Lindsey Connolly, and together they founded Destined for Grace Children’s Relief, a non-profit organization that alleviates some of the burdens Haitian children face and helps to provide them with love, hope and faith. Over time, the focus and purpose was refined to education, building a foundation of hope for the future. 

Named as Cal Lutheran’s 2016 Outstanding Young Alumna, Smith is recognized for her achievements in serving others and the impact she makes for these children in Haiti.

As a Cal Lutheran alumna, Smith knows the power a quality education can provide. She credits her Criminal Justice degree for not only helping her develop the ability to identify a problem, think critically and take decisive action, but also for building the confidence needed to find her own path.

“I spent four years at Cal Lutheran with the intent of continuing on to law school after graduation,” she said. “Those ten days spent in Haiti completely changed my direction. I knew my original plans were not what God had in mind for my life. What I saw in Haiti was tattooed in my brain, and was never going to be forgotten.”

Today, Destined for Grace operates on a five-acre campus in Mirebalais, Haiti. Smith said a new school structure was completed in January 2016, and is being used to educate 220 students between Kindergarten and 6th grade.

With many in the region not able to attend school because of extreme poverty levels, Destined For Grace plays a crucial role in education and development for the children it serves. Through donations and ongoing fundraising, they not only educate, but also offer a daily meal program, a parent support group, distribution of solar lights to families who may not have electicity, a water filtration program to provide clean water at home, and after-school activities, as well as growing crops for the meal program on the school’s five-acre property which includes potatoes, beans, lemons and mangos.

Expanding her reach, Smith has opened two thrift stores in the Santa Barbara area to help fund her work in Haiti. The hard work is paying off as Destined for Grace has now grown to employ 15 people in the Santa Barbara area, as well as an additional 25 staff members in Haiti.

“My long term goal is to eventually expand and open a second campus to accommodate grades 7-12,” she said.  “We also hope to continue expanding our reach through the jobs we are able to provide.”

Smith and her husband, Ty, have two children, a two and a half year old son, Jacob Ryder, and a daughter, Kylie Quinn, who was born in October 2016.

“As a mother, I want my children to learn compassion, develop the desire to help those in need and learn the importance of acts of service,” she said. “I developed as an individual at Cal Lutheran, but also gained the knowledge and confidence there to find my purpose.”

Her proudest moment is the physical transformation they are seeing in the students after the first year of opening the school and starting the meal program. In the span of one year, Smith says the students have completely transformed -- physically, mentally and spiritually. Under the care of Destined for Grace, the children are growing, smiling, full of energy and are passing their proficiency exams. 

Seeing that transformation take shape is exaclty what Smith envisioned when her journey of service began in 2008.