JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. — Whitley Smith and her father paddle out into the foamy surf every morning. For them, it's become almost a sacred routine.
They stretch, getting out all the kinks and cracks, then methodically wax up their longboards before trudging out into the crashing waves.
Whitley, who goes by Whit, moves gracefully, duck-diving under the whitewash of the oncoming breakers and popping up on the other side. By watching, you would think she had been surfing her whole life.
But this 12-year-old only just got on a board 10 months ago. Before that, she had a much different life.
Daniel is a local organization that helps nearly 3,500 locally abused children, as well as at-risk families, every day.
Whit lived there for a period of time after having been abandoned, and shuffled through nearly 20 different foster homes before her 10th birthday.
She was adopted once, but the couple dropped Whit off at school one day and never returned to pick her up.
“They just decided they wanted a baby,” said Emily Smith, who met Whit in 2019 as a young girl with severe trust issues.
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Emily and her husband, Scott Smith, initially met Whitley while she was residing in Daniel’s residential treatment program.
"The first time we met Whit, she was just a tiny little thing," explains Emily Smith. "She had two ponytails. And she was absolutely adorable, but she was shy... she was so shy."
Waves of change
The residential treatment program at Daniel’s Belfort Road campus is a place for kids who struggle with severe mental and emotional issues. It’s one of the few places in Florida where children who’ve faced severe trauma can receive focused, 24-hour care in a residential setting.
While visiting with Whit, the Smiths say they bonded with her, and their relationship quickly became more.
"She asked us to be her mom and dad," says Emily Smith.
“Well, I was very shy at first, I was scared of everything," Whit chimed in. "And then I was just like this isn’t so bad, so I asked them to be my mom and dad, and they said yes.”
Shortly after, the couple began working to adopt her, a process they completed in 2020. Today, they say Daniel’s treatment program saved her life, and gave them a daughter they never knew they needed.
"You know, I never saw myself becoming a mom, and the moment that we met this little girl, that’s all I could think about," says Emily Smith. "And seeing her and being able to look into her eyes, I knew that this was my daughter. Well, I knew before she asked. It was literally from that very first day.”
Now, Whit has come a long way from the frightened, shy girl she once was. A strong student and an accomplished competitive surfer whose smile brightens the beach.
"It's been so awesome to watch her just evolve into this little young lady," says Emily Smith. "I mean, to be able to have watched her grow, it’s amazing. Absolutely amazing."
A new vision
Whit's surfing idol is Atlantic Beach's very own Justin Quintal, the 2019 World Surfing League longboard champion. Her mom says she has a surf shirt with his name on in and posters hanging up in her room.
"I met him at 'The Poles' and well Justin came up to me and my dad, and we were just going to leave, but he wanted us to surf with him," says Whit.
"Justin, if you’re watching this, I miss you and I can't wait to surf with you when you come back!”
For the Smiths, they hope that Whit will continue to excel as she makes waves in the ocean of life.
Because for the Smith's, there's really no place like home.
Except for maybe the beach.
Daniel continues to raise money to renovate the original buildings on its campus, focusing first on the cottages where children reside in order to create optimal healing environments.
If you’d like to contribute toward renovating the cottages in the residential treatment program, please contact Madison Shelly at 904-296-1055, ext. 1031.
If you are interested in getting involved in fostering or adoption, there are thousands of children that need your help. Click here for a list of resources that may be helpful to you.