UT grad student Natasha Smet sorts and packs bras in her Toledo apartment for the Free the Girls program.
Natasha Smet is forging her way through autism research and occupational therapy as a University of Toledo graduate student, but those obligations have not subdued her determination to do something for others less fortunate.
The South Africa native, whose rocky childhood gave her the impetus to become an advocate for women, is collecting donated, gently used bras to send to Mozambique where former sex slaves sell them at used-clothing markets to earn a living.
A doctoral candidate, Ms. Smet learned about the program, called Free the Girls, from a friend. Free the Girls was co-founded by Kimba Langas, of Denver, who has described herself as an “accidental abolitionist.” What Ms. Langas thought would be a small project has mushroomed in a few years. She has collected thousands of bras, new and used, to send to Mozambique.
The mission fits Ms. Smet, 34, raised by a “rebel mother” who insisted that she grow up to become “a woman’s woman.” Ms. Smet began advocating for women when she was just a youngster.
“I remember going to a family that was beating up the woman who cleaned their house. I told them it was wrong. South Africans treated native black South Africans so poorly. Justice was a big thing for me. I was at a school that taught me how to treat other people,” she said, adding that she was in the first grade when she started collecting for UNICEF. “I decided that though I was so poor, I still had a lot more than other people.”
Ms. Smet’s journey compels her to improve life for others. An Indian, she experienced racism firsthand as a minority in apartheid South Africa. After her mother escaped with her from an abusive marriage, they were homeless for years.
“I had moved 26 times by the time I was in high school,” she said, adding that the only constants in her life were her mother, grandmother, and school.
There might have been more stability had her mother yielded to the cultural norm that a woman’s place was to stay with her husband — even an abusive one. But Vonita Ruurds — who has since remarried — wouldn’t have that.
And in a culture where girls are expected to only learn to cook and clean and to marry, it was just fine with her that her daughter competed with her male cousins and took an interest in science. Ms. Ruurds endured opposition and hardships because she wanted a better life for her daughter.
Ms. Smet — now a citizen of the United States, where she has lived for 16 years — and her husband Thomas Smet met while she was an exchange student near Ontario. When she finished that program, she returned to Benoni, South Africa. For the next five months, her husband — a part-time professor in Milwaukee where he also is a Web developer and designer — called her daily. She returned to the United States and the couple married.
“My parents made me promise not to lose sight of the goal to become a college graduate,” Ms. Smet said. She graduated summa cum laude from Mount Mary College in Milwaukee.
She also promised her mother that she would always give back to communities in which she lived. In San Francisco, she worked for the homeless, and in Milwaukee, where she helped co-found a women’s organization for gender equity, she tutored English as a second language and volunteered at nursing facilities for the elderly.
While she has worked with disabled people here, Toledo — which has been described as a hub for the sex slave trade — now benefits from her involvement with Free the Girls.
Ms. Smet admitted that when she looks at her mounting college bills, “some days service does weigh me down. Others think I should be helping myself, but this is something that I want to do and I want to help other people. I don’t know how to stop giving [to others]. People need to give back. For me, it’s about gratitude. I’m so grateful for the things I have.”
In U.S. dollars, a “semi decent” bra in South Africa would cost about $85, Ms. Smet said. She expected to foot the shipping bill, but two women in her exercise group, Fabulously Fit by Angela Steward, agreed to pay it.
“That’s another thing about Toledo. Though I don’t have biological family here, I feel as though I have my own community in my Fab Fit sisters,” she said, adding that group has donated at least 100 of the garments.
Reflecting on her background, Ms. Smet said, “Small differences do make a difference at the end of the day. This community has been good to me. I got here because of those [childhood] experiences. I have a story. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. I’m comfortable in my own skin.”
Contact Rose Russell at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6178.
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