Tempest Smith Foundation Closes Its Doors

Heather Greene —  November 3, 2013 — 16 Comments

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.

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Launched in 2003, The Tempest Smith Foundation was the brain-child of Denessa Smith, the mother of bullying-victim Tempest Smith. In February of 2001, Tempest committed suicide after enduring 6 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.

Annette Crossman

Annette Crossman

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.

Tempest Smith

Tempest Smith

At the end of 5th 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.

tempestmainpageBut 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 cry baby.”  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)

Oberon Osiris and Banshee

Oberon Osiris and Banshee

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.

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Denessa Smith

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 6 $500 dollar 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.  Twelve 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.

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Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer and Pagan spirit living in the Deep South. She is currently the National Public Information Officer for Covenant of the Goddess and has worked extensively with Lady Liberty League. Heather's work has been published in Circle Magazine and elsewhere. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History with a background in the performing and visual arts.
  • Liam Cavanagh

    I wrote this last year and tried to get in touch with the foundation before I published it. Denessa and I shared a few moments that I will always remember, and subsequently has shaped my view on the obligations I have as a writer and Pagan to the general public. – http://www.witchvox.com/va/dt_va.html?a=&c=passages&id=14508

  • nousernamesavailable

    thank you for sharing

  • Rob Elliott

    The last part of this makes me tear a little as a survivor of bulling of this kind. It really does make me so happy to hear that one of the bullies woke up. More then anything else that makes me feel happy. Particularly having followed Tempest’s story since it happened.

    • The_L1985

      Likewise. It’s so beautiful to know that someone who’d made life so miserable for another person not only repented, but is now actively working to prevent that pain from repeating itself in other young people.

  • Tommysole

    It makes me sick was the goddamn jesus freaks and general population do to people because they are different!
    Many times have witnessed bullying in the school I attended, and I intervened! I was called a bully for slapping a few bulliers, protecting the freaks, geeks and outcasts. One time a father of a bullier had the audacity to come at me for slapping his sons face -the little snot was beating on a kid half his size and he out weighed the kid by 50 pounds- so I slapped the bully in mouth and asked him “how does it feel?” Violence is not the answer, but use it if it is needed.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Violence is not *the* answer, but it is a valid one, in certain cases.

      I was, somewhat ironically, bullied as a teen for being the local (CofE) priest’s (step)son. The bullying ended only when puberty granted me the physical superiority over my peers to ensure they didn’t do it again.

      • Tommysole

        I agree with you when you say, It is a valid one in certain cases.

  • http://thesatyrsthicket.blogspot.com Nicholas Farrell

    The feels! My god, I was bawling from beginning to end!

  • JaneGalt

    Goddess bless these brave women. I was fortunate enough to have met Denessa online some years ago when we discussed hate crimes against Pagans, which I have been writing a book about. Next year I am hoping to finally complete it and get it into print. The fight for equality will go on!

  • Diare Turtlemoon

    Very touching story, I cried for the parents and young girl. I am glad to know about this. Bullying can happen at any age. 5 years ago I was bullied for months at work by a younger group of women, They are in their early 30′s, I was 55. I was old enough, and been around long enough to know how to handle it, but it is much too common behavior by people who feel entitled and know they can away with it.

  • Macha NightMare

    My admiration and gratitude to the good folks who carried education about tolerance forward.

  • Ursyl

    I am appreciating the last part, that at least one of the bullies realized and changed her ways–to the point of counseling victims of bullying.

    One aspect of the whole situation that really made me furious at the time was the school administration’s statement that they didn’t want to make the (bullying) students feel guilty. THEY WERE GUILTY, damn it. Short of driving them to suicide as well, entirely counter-productive, they bloody well should have felt guilty for their own actions.

  • Lolianne Rivercat

    This hits home. I knew Denessa through FOCAS and I only wish I could have met her a year earlier. Tempest would have still been alive and I would have loved to be her “Big Sister”. She was only two and a half years younger than me and Goddess knows I would have stood up for her.

    May the Goddess hold you in her arms forever, Tempest angel.

  • Kathryn Casey Thomson

    I have wonderful memories of working with Annette and Denessa at ConVocation and RWB. I remember talking to Annette about the future of the Foundation back in 2009. I was proud she was carrying the torch, but also understood and respected her thoughts of moving on. Annette and John…. love and light to you both. You will always be in our hearts! *hugs*

  • Charles Cosimano

    Fortunately now we have very small cameras and youtube. There is nothing like a video of bullying spread around the world to make school administrators shake in their shoes and look for real estate under a bridge.

    • Bane

      Hopefully such a thing would work. But I have a sneaking suspicion that all public videos might accomplish is to give the bully(ies) their fifteen minutes of fame or increase their ‘street credibility and social status.
      As someone who was bullied, I can say it didn’t stop until I went to a private college preparatory high school with a student to teacher ratio of about five to one.