In February 2014, the Tempest Smith Foundation (TSF) will be holding its very last ConVocation fundraiser before permanently closing its doors. Annette Crossman, TSF’s current executive director and widow of founder Denessa Smith, says that it is “time for the torch to be passed on …and return to normal life.” For over ten years, TSF has been a voice for diversity tolerance in its Michigan community and an advocate of anti-bullying campaigns.
Launched in 2003, the Tempest Smith Foundation was the brainchild of Denessa Smith, the mother of bullying victim Tempest Smith. In February of 2001, Tempest committed suicide after enduring six years of persistent abuse in school. Over the following two years Denessa was able to transform her grief into building a foundation that would advocate for tolerance – a foundation that might save other children from her daughter’s fate.
Looking back at Tempest’s life, Annette remembers a child with an “old soul.” She was a natural flute player who loved writing poetry. At the age of five, Annette recalls Tempest wanting to “give thanks to the Goddess.” The Smith-Crossman family was not Pagan and had no Pagan friends. When asked how she knew about the Goddess, Tempest responded, “I just know.”
When Tempest was older, she began asking for Pagan books. Finally Denessa purchased one from a local metaphysical shop. After reading the book herself, Denessa became comfortable with her daughter’s growing interest. Annette admits to being less open and a bit nervous with a “witchcraft” book in the house. However, she eventually read it and realized that Wicca was a recognized Earth-based religion. Annette says, “I was a raised a hippie kid. I got it.” The book was expressing everything that she had learned within a different theological context. She adds:
I did more homework and I became educated. I was OK with it because I believed in Tempest. I believed in what she believed.
Unfortunately, this only tells part of Tempest’s story. From the beginning of grade school Tempest was the victim of bullying. Long before she flirted with a gothic clothing style or openly discussed Pagan concepts, she was harassed by her peers at school. As early as first grade, Tempest was teased for being the daughter of a lesbian couple. She was also teased about her mother’s weight. Throughout elementary school, Tempest was an easy target for abuse.
At the end of fifth grade, Tempest begged to go to private school. Not realizing the full scope of the problem, Denessa and Annette agreed to send Tempest to a private music academy after a year or two of public middle school. Unfortunately, that day would never come.
In middle school, the bullying only intensified. New kids joined the old ones. At this point, the bullying began to refocus on Tempest’s interest in Paganism. Annette remembers one occasion where her daughter came running home from school with her face and body beaten and slashed. Taking matters into her own hands, Annette grabbed Tempest and returned to the school. She directly confronted the girl who had done this to her daughter.
But the problems persisted. Later that year, a group of girls encircled Tempest in a hallway, called her a witch and chanted “Jesus loves you.” A teacher saw this happening and did nothing to stop it. When Denessa and Annette confronted this teacher, she called Tempest “a crybaby.” The distressed mothers did all they could. Even with that, they were unaware of how deeply Tempest was experiencing this pain. The women never expected what was to come.
Early one cold February morning Tempest ate breakfast and then went back to her room to finish getting ready for school. When it was time to leave, Annette called her downstairs. Tempest didn’t respond. After a few minutes, Annette went upstairs to get her. She was not prepared for what was behind the closed door. Tempest had hung herself.
A few hectic days later, Denessa and Annette found Tempest’s private journal tucked into a hideaway drawer in her desk. The notebook was a log of years of abuse including names and dates. Together the women read its contents. Annette says, “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Shortly after Tempest’s memorial and The Detroit News* ran the story, there was an unexpected outpouring of support from the local Michigan Pagan community. Annette says “I was amazed by the outreach. I had never seen such kindness in my life.” Pagan groups and individuals sent them food, money, cards and flowers. These people were to become instrumental in supporting Denessa in the building of the Tempest Smith Foundation.
By 2002 the police investigations were over and the lawsuit against the Lincoln Park school system had settled out of court. Denessa was ready to refocus her energy. She turned to the Federation of Covens and Solitaries (FOCAS) and the Magickal Educational Council. With their help and others, Denessa built her new foundation for tolerance. The opening ceremony was held at ConVocation in 2003. Two of its organizers, Oberon Osiris and Banshee of the Circle of Wondrous Stories stated:
The ritual… drew over 100 people. (Witches, Pagans, Tempest’s doctors, Denessa’s lawyers, journalists, and Denessa’s friends and family). It was a cathartic experience for many of those present. (See Full Statement Here)
In the coming years, Denessa raised money to support her personal outreach efforts. She spoke at schools throughout Michigan and Ohio. She shared her story at local events such as the Wyandotte street fair. She partnered with non-profit, good-will organizations such as Gift of Life and sponsored community functions like “Tie-Dye for Tolerance.” Denessa became the local voice of diversity tolerance.
Unfortunately TSF’s momentum was abruptly cut short in the summer of 2008. Three years earlier Denessa had gastric bypass surgery after which she lost an extraordinary amount of weight. By 2008 she needed a skin-reduction operation. In August Denessa went back into the hospital for that surgery. Within a few days of the operation she became terribly ill. Her intestines had unexpectedly twisted causing her to become septic. Eight days later she was gone.
Annette was devastated and “mentally beat down.” Not only was the foundation in full swing, the couple had just begun the process of opening a small business. With the support of friends, family and the Pagan community, Annette kept on going. She became TSF’s executive director and within a year was co-owner of a successful store, Total Health Foods.
Before passing away, Denessa’s dream was to award TSF college scholarships. The recipient would be chosen through a contest in which students would submit a 300-word essay on the meaning of “tolerance.” Annette fulfilled this goal. Since 2010, TSF has given out six $500 scholarships to Michigan high school seniors. At Convocation 2014, TSF will award three more scholarships – its last action before closing down operation.
For Annette personally, it is time to move on or as she says, “pass the torch.” She quickly adds that Denessa and Tempest “left her with a great gift – John, Denessa’s son.” Their memory lives in him.
It also lives in the enduring legacy left by the Tempest Smith Foundation. 12 years of Tempest’s life transformed into twelve years of being the voice and face of tolerance. Her story has been recounted in many books (e.g. Bullying in American Schools by Ann Garrett) on bullying and Paganism (e.g. Wicca for Couples by A.J. Drew.) It has been told time and time again over the internet. As a result of Denessa’s work and others like her, schools across the countries have implemented aggressive anti-bullying measures, protocols, and tolerance clubs. Local governments are now offering training for parents, counselors, administrators and teachers.
Recently a young woman approached Annette in her store. At first Annette did not recognize the young woman. But after saying her name, Annette knew exactly who she was. Here was the girl that physically abused Tempest in middle school. She had come to apologize and say that both the confrontation and Tempest’s suicide had completely changed her life. After years of therapy, this young woman had become a counselor specifically for young victims of bullying.
The torch has been passed.
* The original story, “Teasing and Taunting led a girl to suicide” by George Hunter ran on March 7, 2001 and is available through the Detroit News archives.