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Making Smiley Connections


One of the first things you notice about Trident Technical College graduate Denetra Smiley ‘12 is her infectious smile and joyful disposition.

Although she was not born with her last name, it fits her perfectly.

“Smiley is actually my married name,” she laughs. “But I was always an upbeat, happy person.” 

What is not always evident in Smiley’s positive demeanor is the pain in her heart from the loss of her 28-year-old son, DeAndre - who succumbed to osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, five years ago.

It took her a year to be able to talk about it.

“He was a ray of sunshine. No matter what he was doing he had a smile on his face, and he was known for it.” said Smiley.

When she was finally ready to talk, Smiley said she didn’t know where to turn. She felt very alone and as if people didn’t understand what she was going through. She didn’t want to burden family and friends that were trying to move on with their lives.

“I needed someone to talk to who truly understood the hurt, the pain and the emotions,” she said.

Smiley eventually found a support group online and that turned out to be exactly what she needed. But noting the general lack of support available for grieving parents, she was inspired to start her own group on Facebook.

Designed as a safe space for parents, grandparents and other close family members to come together and talk about their “angels,” Parents that have Lost a Child/Children Support Group currently has 260 members, connecting families from all over the U.S.

“This is my pride, my passion and my family,” she said, “Everyone looks out for one another.”

When Smiley graduated from Trident Tech in 2012, she was the first person in her family to earn a college degree.

“One of the most amazing moments of my life was being able to walk across the stage and receive my associate degree,” she said.

It was no easy task. She grew up in North Charleston in what she refers to as the “projects,” and although she had a happy, fun childhood, there were challenges. She dropped out of high school at 18 and had her first child.

As a wife, mother and full-time employee, there were a lot of starts and stops when it came to her education. 

She eventually received her degree in administrative office technology and later earned her certification in medical billing and coding at a college in Georgia, where she lives with her husband of 28 years. She works full-time as an administrator for a healthcare company.

“At Trident Tech, I had such a great experience. My advisors and instructors helped me find my voice, and let me know that anything was possible, “she said.

As a result of the work she is doing with her online support group, she has started an organization called, Smiley Connections, to serve as a support group that will come together through retreats and other events. She hopes to transition it into a nonprofit so that she can raise funds to fulfill her mission to advocate and support families.

Additionally, she has been in contact with senators, and she has started a petition on advocating for FMLA laws to include longer bereavement leave.

She said that this is what she was always meant to do.

“I feel like I have been called to help others with their pain. It’s only when we hear from other people who’ve had a similar experience that we find a sense of hope that it won’t always feel this way.”

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DeAndre Thompson

 Smiley Connections

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