Alumna takes action to aid her community during COVID-19 pandemic

Lisa Smith and her partner surrounded by bottles of different ingredients for making hand sanitizer.
Lisa Smith and her partner.

As a social worker, solving problems to help others comes naturally to Lisa Smith (BSW, ‘13).

“I am a social worker. We are the helpers of the world,” Smith said. “We are not meant to sit around and do nothing. That isn’t who we are. During a pandemic, this rings true more than ever.”

The Colorado State University School of Social Work alumna and Air Force veteran had been working with Team Rubicon, a nonprofit in Arvada connecting veterans with first responders to deploy emergency response teams, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

lisa smith's partner making sanitizer in their backyard workshop
Lisa Smith’s partner making sanitizer in the backyard workshop.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recommending washing hands with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol, to prevent the spread of infection, cleaning products had disappeared from store shelves.

Smith responded swiftly.

“My partner and I set out to find a local solution to get people sanitizer,” Smith said. “Not having a clue where to start, but knowing it was a need, we started reaching out and researching.”

Micro action, macro perspective

bottles of grain alcohol and bottles of the hand sanitizer finished product
Bottles of grain alcohol and bottles of finished hand sanitizer.

To get the project off the ground, they connected with veteran friends to set up a fundraiser. Using the World Health Organization recipe for sanitizer, they searched all around the state to find the required ingredients.

“The hardest were bottles and alcohol,” said Smith. “We found a local science company that was able to get us the required peroxide and glycerin. Local liquor stores had Everclear [grain alcohol]. Alpha Graphics and C&D Printing donated waterproof labels. We crowdsourced the bottles before finding a wholesale company. And just like that, our backyard shed turned into a sanitizer workshop!”

Today, the “backyard shed” operation has produced more than 2,000 bottles of hand sanitizer, Smith said. Those bottles have been distributed across her local community to nonprofits, health-care organizations, businesses, the Arvada police and fire departments, and sometimes it was handed out directly to folks on the street.

While the work has been time-consuming, Smith draws on her background as a social work professional with a particular interest in macro policy and program development, to see things in a different light.

“One benefit of COVID is it shows us the weaknesses in our social supports and programs,” Smith said. “It shows us how vulnerable elderly, disabled and low-income persons truly are. It also shows us how to come together and grow. It forces us to become creative and solve problems with urgency. COVID has reignited my hope and love for our social workers, first responders and public servants.”

Driven to make a difference

volunteer receiving box of hand sanitizer at donation station of nonprofit
Volunteer receiving box of hand sanitizer.

Smith has been passionate about social work and community service all her life.

“My father is a social worker, my sister is a social worker, and my mother is a teacher,” Smith said. “Service and community involvement is in our blood. We were born to serve.”

After serving in the Air Force, Smith came to CSU to study social work. She completed her field education with former Colorado State Sen. [now Larimer County Commissioner] John Kefalas, and successfully advocated for an increase in macro social work field placement opportunities for students.

fire station personnel holding donated bottles of hand sanitizer
Fire station personnel holding the donated hand sanitizer.

“I chose CSU because of the quality curriculum and professors but also because of its beauty and passion around sustainability,” Smith said. “I knew I was in a safe and welcoming environment even if I was considered a nontraditional student. They had the ALVS [Adult Learner and Veteran Services] office that I loved so much I eventually worked there for several years.”

Smith hopes that more people will come to recognize the value of essential workers.

“Sometimes it seems like we are just a drop in the massive bucket of COVID response, but the helpers in the world — the social workers, first responders, essential workers, the veterans — they are the drops in the bucket the world needs,” she said. “Your work means more and has more of an impact than you know, to the individual and the community.”

The School of Social Work is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.