BYU alumna Hayley Smith had an office job and a desire to make a difference in the world seven months ago. Today, she works full time running a nonprofit organization that aims to help millions of refugees worldwide.
Smith started her nonprofit organization, Lifting Hands International, in January after volunteering at a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece over the Christmas break. While there, Smith saw for herself the refugees’ desperate need for relief.
“My eyes were opened to the insanity and the chaos that is happening right now over there,” Smith said. “The camps are very, very bad.”
Although the refugee camp was receiving a lot of donations, people were sending a lot of the same items and not enough of the things the refugees needed most, according to Smith. She said the donations were unorganized and there was an insufficient number of volunteers to help sort and distribute the items quickly enough to meet the refugees’ needs.
Melena Warden, a BYU student who volunteered with Smith at the refugee camp in Lesbos, said seeing these conditions inspired Smith to find a way to improve things for both the refugees and the volunteers.
“It hadn’t been a thought before; it had just been a project,” Warden said. “But being there and seeing the devastation and also seeing some of the lack of organized donations that were given to camps, she really wanted to do something about it, and she felt like she could.”
Looking for a way to help when she returned to the U.S., Smith said she felt inspired to start a nonprofit organization that would send the refugee camps organized boxes full of the items refugees really needed. Smith registered Lifting Hands International as an official nonprofit incorporation and began collecting donations for refugees from her home in Chandler, Arizona.
Smith created an Amazon.com wish list with items she knew the refugee camps needed and had the shipments sent to her home address. The donations started coming in slowly as she received three to four boxes every day with items for the refugees.
In March, Lifting Hands International became a federally tax exempt organization, just a few days before the LDS Church’s General Women’s Conference, when Relief Society General President Linda K. Burton announced the church’s I Was a Stranger refugee relief effort. Warden said the conference felt like “a personal love letter from Heavenly Father” after all she and Hayley had done to help the refugees.
“We both knew that what we had been doing had been inspired of God,” Warden said. “It was just so beautiful to think that what we had been doing was something that was very close to God’s heart.”
Smith’s older sister Maren Butcher, who also lives in Chandler, said the response to Smith’s organization was “like an explosion” following Elder Patrick Kearon’s general conference talk, “Refuge from the Storm,” in which he encouraged church members to find ways to help refugees.
“Within a couple of days, there were so many packages at her front door that they had to be bound in cellophane on a pallet,” Butcher said. “Every room in her condo was filled to the absolute brim.”
Butcher said she then began receiving shipments of donations at her home, which took over her three-car garage. Community members later offered to rent warehouse space to store all of the items, which filled up the warehouse quickly. The sisters enlisted the help of willing ward and community members to help transport and sort the donations.
Within two months, Smith’s organization received enough donations to fill a 40-foot container with items for the refugees. The container is now on its way to refugee camps in Lebanon, which are in constant need of relief, according to Smith.
Although running Lifting Hands International started out as a side job, Smith soon realized she’d have to choose between keeping her office job and manning her nonprofit organization. Smith said she recently made the decision to leave her regular job in order to dedicate the time required to run her nonprofit organization. Making this transition has been “a matter of faith,” according to Smith.
“It feels like I’m skiing downhill on a black diamond in the mist,” Smith said. “I have no idea what’s coming next, but I’m going and I can’t stop.”
Smith said she feels that divine inspiration has guided her along the 10-year path that led to helping the refugees. She said this journey began as a college student when she discovered her passion for the Arabic language during a difficult time in her life.
Smith had received treatment for an eating disorder while studying at BYU, but started slipping back during her senior year. One day when she felt especially dark, she went to the library and picked out a book, which happened to be the Arabic alphabet book. Smith said opening the book almost felt like falling in love.
“From then on, I knew this is what I wanted to do,” Smith said. “I was just so lost, and finding Arabic was this huge miracle for me. It kept me going and it really lifted me out of this awful, horrible place.”
Smith graduated from BYU in 2007 with a minor in Arabic and later received a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of London. She then taught English and Arabic at public schools in Boston for a few years.
In 2015, Smith moved to Arizona and got an office job, hoping to settle down. Over the Christmas break, Smith said she felt inspired to serve as a refugee camp volunteer in Lesbos, which charted her course toward starting Lifting Hands International.
“It’s obvious to me that Hayley was following her own inspiration and revelation because the need is really, really strong and it’s very timely,” Butcher said. “She has been prepared for a decade now to do this very work.”
Warden said she is inspired by Smith’s example of serving others and using her talents to make a difference in the world.
“Although she’s had her very fair share of trial and struggle, she has been able to overcome and live by the Spirit,” Warden said. “I think most people put in her situation would just do things for themselves, when she’s constantly looking for ways to help and understand others.”
Smith said starting Lifting Hands International has been an “overwhelmingly positive” experience in her life that has helped not only herself, but also the refugees, who benefit from any service her organization can provide.
“All the world needs is a lot of kindness and a lot of people to make a few sacrifices to make big differences, and it’s really possible,” Smith said.