Most high school students get a firsthand view of bullying, harassment or name-calling at some point. 

While many try to keep their heads down and avoid the problem, Danielle Smith decided to do something about it. Even before entering Mount Ararat High School in Topsham, she got involved with the school’s gay-straight alliance. Later, she took an active role in the southern Maine chapter of the national Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

“I feel passionately everyone should have the same rights,” said Smith, 17, who is straight. “And I’ve been lucky enough to know some older students who felt the same way, who were sort of mentors to me.” 

She has led efforts at her school to reduce hate language and promote the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students. She has acted as a media spokeswoman on issues of anti-discrimination. She has recruited other young people to the cause, and she has organized youth volunteers to work to prevent the eventual repeal of Maine’s gay marriage law.

And, by the way, she’s valedictorian of her class, graduating in June.

For her four-plus years of leadership and tireless volunteering, she has been honored as the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network‘s Student Advocate of the Year.

More than 100 young people were nominated for the national award, and the organization flew Smith and her parents to its Respect Awards ceremony, to be held at Gotham Hall in New York City on Monday night.

“She is just a very thoughtful, grounded and highly reflective person and a real lover of justice,” said Betsy Parsons, co-chair of the network’s southern Maine chapter and the person who nominated Smith. “Harassment is an unnecessary burden for so many students, not just gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. And she believes no one should struggle with that.”

Smith, who lives in Bowdoin, was in eighth grade when she befriended the leader of Mount Ararat’s gay-straight alliance and got interested in the issue.

Besides serving as a leader of the school group, she was most recently the only high school student on GLSEN/Southern Maine’s board.

At her school, she hosted “days of action,” in which students signed pledges to respect others’ rights, or remained silent all day to promote rights awareness.

Parsons said Smith’s group at Mount Ararat helped inspire other students to start groups in other schools across Maine.

Smith said her parents, Richard and Victoria Smith, raised her to believe in the importance of equal rights and responsibilities for all, though they didn’t lead her specifically into activism.

Smith is a musician and a competitive swimmer and has tutored other students and cared for children and elderly people through her church.

Smith is very interested in the study of languages, German specifically, and plans to use a scholarship to spend her first year out of high school in Germany. After that, she will attend Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. She’s not sure what she’ll study.

Smith said Monday, while in New York, that the experience of staying in a swank hotel and preparing to attend a gala awards ceremony was “surreal for a girl from a small town.”

She said she got a lot – including personal growth – from the work that earned her the award. “I’ve met a lot of fantastic people and have gained so much self-confidence from doing this.”
 
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: [email protected]