Barbara Shelly

Barbara Shelly: Whatever happens with the Chiefs, quarterback Alex Smith runs a great foundation

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is having a tough season, but the Alex Smith Foundation is a charitable success.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is having a tough season, but the Alex Smith Foundation is a charitable success.

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is catching a lot of flak for the team’s abysmal slide in the season’s early going. But give Smith credit for this: He’s got a great charitable cause.

Last week I wrote about the struggles of young people who spend their childhoods in state custody, drifting among foster homes and relative placements as attempts at parental reunification fall short. It’s a lousy, unattached life for kids, and one that often gets even more difficult when a young person turns 18.

No longer wards of the state, they are expected to get by on their own, with limited financial support and, for some, even less emotional backing. They are less likely than other teenagers to earn high school diplomas or take college courses, and they are at high risk for substance abuse, homelessness, pregnancies and involvement with the criminal justice system. In the Kansas City area, two former foster children have been arrested this year on murder charges.

Smith has known about these low odds for awhile. Soon after being selected as the number one pick in the NFL Draft in 2005, he made a visit home to San Diego and, at the urging of his mother, Pam, spoke to students at a residential school for teenage foster children. Right then, Smith settled on supporting kids like these as his cause.

“When I was 18 heading off to college I had the support of family, coaches and a scholarship,” he has said in speeches. “I can’t imagine how we can expect foster teens to be successful when we say to them; you are now 18 and we are cutting you off—so go out and make it on your own.”

He did his research, talking to people in business and child welfare, as well as former foster children. He then formed the Alex Smith Foundation, which supports efforts to help foster kids make a successful transition to adulthood through services such as mentoring, advocacy, tutoring, internships and scholarships.

In 2013, the San Francisco Chronicle printed a story about the foundation’s success. At that time, 23 of 30 foster teens who had received scholarships and other support from Smith’s foundation had graduated from college — a healthy percentage by any measure.

Many of the programs Smith supports are in California, but this year he began a partnership with the Kansas City-based Cornerstones of Care, a consortium of agencies that provides services to foster children. Smith’s foundation is working with Cornerstones’ Youth Educational Success program, which helps young people complete high school, enroll in college and succeed there. The program, in fact, was modeled after the work done by Smith’s foundation, even before he came to Kansas City to quarterback for the Chiefs.

Smith gets high marks for the business side of his foundation, too. A Boston Globe investigation in 2013 found that, while many professional athletes start foundations, many of them are poorly run and fail to fund their missions adequately. The Alex Smith Foundation was cited as a model. It spent 91 percent of its funding on helping foster kids during the time span that the Globe examined. Much of the funding had come from Smith himself.

He has also lobbied on behalf of foster children before the California State Legislature and the U.S. Congress.

Chiefs fans may or may not remember the multiple times Smith has been sacked this season. Or the interceptions, or the times we wish he would have thrown deep instead of another unsuccessful short pass.

But it’s a pretty safe bet that a growing team of young people don’t really care what happens on the football field. Smith is the person who made is possible for them to get through college, and they will never forget that.