Michael Smith, who grew up in Cherry Hill, always wanted a career in medicine, but first he had to resist the call of the corner that claims so many young black men.
Today, Dr. Smith, a 31-year-old podiatrist, credits his Catholic upbringing, Catholic schools and, most of all, the parish life at St. Veronica, Cherry Hill, for showing him a life beyond the streets.
“St. V’s” as he called it, had an active teen group,” he said. “I had my only skiing experience at St. Veronica’s. We went on retreats. Many of my peers in the neighborhood had never done those things – they’d never seen a snow-covered mountain.”
He also played in the church’s youth basketball program.
“That was my saving grace,” Dr. Smith said. “We spent a few hours in practice; that’s a few hours being constructive, and that time easily could have been spent on the streets or the corners.” He recalls members of the team being afraid to walk through the neighborhood to practice “because someone might mess with them” and the coaches would pick them up and drive them to the church.
The team won a tournament that sent them on to play in Philadelphia, another world for most of the players.
“That’s stuff we talk about today,” Dr. Smith said. “You don’t understand the importance of those things. That was invaluable.”
Dr. Smith attended St. Peter Claver and St. Alphonsus schools before going to Baltimore City College High School.
His working mother chose Catholic schools, he said, because of the structured after-school care they provided.
“I don’t know if a price could be placed on what it did for me,” he said. “I don’t think I could put it into words as far as the magnitude of structure and faith.” The study habits he learned – to do his homework first after school – carried him through high school and Howard University.
After graduation from Howard, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do with his biology degree, so he worked as a lab tech while shadowing with medical professionals. Initially, he had planned to be a pediatrician, but after he shadowed with a podiatrist, he was impressed with how well that profession blended with family life.
“He would get home at a decent hour,” he said with a laugh. “That was important to me.” Dr. Smith met his wife, Milikka, while working in the lab, and she was headed to nursing school.
He entered the Ohio College of Podiatric Medicine in Cleveland, and then did a podiatric surgical residency at Washington Hospital Center. Now he’s doing a rotation at Union Memorial Hospital, and his wife is a nurse at St. Agnes Hospital. Their daughter Mikel will be 2 in April.
Although his great-grandmother, grandmother and mother are still members of St. Veronica’s, two years ago Dr. Smith began attending Baptist services, his wife’s faith, because it simplified family life. But whenever he’s in the neighborhood, he goes to St. V’s and his “church family.”
“Even on the bad days I can’t complain because my life could have been way different,” he said.