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Interview with Kelly Thornton Smith

This philanthropist and founder of Center for Living Peace tells why we all want peace and how she plans to help us get it.

smith-branson-richard-sir
Smith with Sir Richard Branson
ANN CHATILLON

Turn on Fox News or CNN and you might think that humans are not very interested in peace. However, if you visit Irvine’s Center for Living Peace, or speak with its brainchild and founder, philanthropist and mom Kelly Thornton Smith, you might change your mind.

“I think deep down, everyone wants peace,” she says. But peace might mean different things in different parts of the world, she says. In war-torn Africa, peace might mean achieving the basics of life: family safety, community, clean water, and healthy food, she says. Here in America, she says peace might come from within, family and community, but also from “luxuries” like art or nature.

Smith feels so strongly that peace – inner and outer – is a basic human desire that years ago she formed the idea for the Center for Living Peace, a place where families could come to work on inner peace through such activities as yoga and meditation, as well as art and fun, and learn how to better attain peace in the community and the world.

Her idea might have gone nowhere, but friends introduced her to a powerful advocate for peace – billionaire philanthropist Sir Richard Branson – and he was so encouraging, Smith says she knew she had to follow through with her dream.

Now, the Center for Living Peace is a truly living, practical entity, which recently celebrated its third anniversary. It has classes in everything from tai chi, Qigong, yoga and meditation to cooking, communication, and art. And it’s not just for adults. In fact, Smith’s original idea was “mommy and me classes with a purpose,” so there is something for all ages at the center – right down to yoga and meditation classes for kids and teens.

The center is also partnered with UC Irvine in its Living Peace Series, featuring world-changing leaders speaking about peace and how each one of us can bring peace into our own lives, as well as our community and the world. Participants have included Charlize Theron, with whom Smith visited Africa to help with Theron’s Africa Outreach Project, iconic environmentalist and humanitarian Jane Goodall, the Dalai Lama, and of course, Sir Richard Branson.

We sat down with Smith and asked her about her road to peace and where she thinks it might lead.

Did your parents instill the value of philanthropy in you?
Yes and no. My mom was a teacher and my dad was in construction and carpentry, but they were always involved in giving back. She was on the PTA and my dad was president of the local Kiwanis Club. My grandmother raised foster children in Delaware and my aunt started a Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for abused and neglected children in Delaware. So at the time, I had never heard the word philanthropist; I just watched my family give back and saw that as natural. It was just part of our lives.

What was your first job?
Throwing out rotten cucumbers was the first thing I got a paycheck for. It was in high school. The town I grew up in was very rural and very small and besides hauling watermelons and corn, that was my first job.

How is pursuing inner or personal peace a philanthropic endeavor?
What I love about ther Center for Living Peace is its philosophy that peace starts with each one of us. The idea of going out to fight for peace or to protest for peace is, to me, giving power to that energy that is not peaceful. So how do you find that peace within yourself? You live it, so that it attracts peace to your family, your community, your world. You be the change you want to see in the world. And we’ve found that our inner work and personal development classes are our most popular. People are really hungry for inner peace.

But you also advocate community service locally and abroad.
That’s right. We try to encompass the inner as well as the outer through service, giving back and helping others. Helping the causes locally and through our Living Peace Series in association with UC Irvine. But, again, it starts with each of us. Like the airlines say: “If you don’t put the oxygen on yourself first, you can’t help someone else.”

Billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson was one of your first supporters. How did that come about?
I didn’t even know Richard Branson but I told a friend who knew him about my idea and he said, “You have to meet with Richard” because Richard is such an advocate of peace. So I went to his island with a friend, and on a hike, he happened to be right next to me. I told him about how I was working on the center and for the rest of the week he grilled me every single day.

What did you come away with from that experience?
He asked the hard business questions, but what I learned on that trip was that we were on the right path, that what we were doing made sense and was good. He didn’t like the name, the Center for Living Peace, though. He thought people would think we are a cult.

Did they?
Certainly when we first began, the biggest question was, “Is this a cult?” We’d say, of course not, because this is not about following a leader, it’s about working with them. So it’s the exact opposite of a cult. But the culture we’ve been raised in is that to find your peace or to find your spirituality, you have to be associated with a religion, or cultural group, or even a cult.

The idea here is that you find that peaceful place and love within yourself by doing the things you love. So maybe it’s art, maybe it’s working with the earth, maybe its music video production. What is it that gives you that joy and bliss and how do you follow that path and find your own way no matter what culture may be saying to you? It’s about allowing each person to find their gift and share it with the world.

You also have a successful Living Peace Series in partnership with UC Irvine that has featured top celebrity speakers. Did that help put you on the map?
Definitely. I’ve seen the power of celebrity. People open their eyes and pay attention when people with such esteemed reputations get involved in this tiny center next to an In-N-Out Burger.

Describe the four pillars on which the center is based.
They’re based on the Mahatma Ghandi quote “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” So, starting with yourself, the four pillars  are inner work and development, then, with your relationship with others, peacemaking and effective communication. Next is safeguarding the environment, and the fourth is arts and culture, which to me is a way to give back and bring meaning to how you’re living.

Do you believe that everyone wants peace?
I think at our very core, as humans, we do want love and we do want connections. But in many places in the world it’s tougher than it is here. The day-to-day struggle to survive makes it a lot tougher to think about these supposedly more esoteric ideas like peace.

Africa, for instance, where you traveled with actor Charlize Theron for her Africa Outreach Project.
Yes. All of the stories I heard of people, especially women, working in Africa, they just want peace. They want their kids to be fed, and they want their kids to be healthy. And if that’s all you get, that’s peace.

You’ve made sure the environment of the center itself is peaceful.
Definitely. We have a water element, we have a place for people to write down their wishes for their life, or for the world, or for their families. We have a library where kids can sit and read. We have a quiet room where all the communication and meditation courses are, which is built in the shape of a mandala – circles with designs within them to represent the form of life, sort of the sacred geometry that gives life to architecture. We get a lot of comments that it’s nice to walk through a door that has the word ‘peace’ above it. Just that reminder that this is a place where you come to feel peaceful makes people remember and ask what peace means. Because we don’t want to define it for anyone. That’s something we thought from the beginning. Everyone has their own definition of peace and we want to provide a wide range of opportunities to find it.

So what classes will people find?
We have yoga for all ages, parenting classes, meditation, tai chi and Qigong classes, art classes, and of course, classes in peacemaking. We even have cooking classes for kids and teens.

Did you ever think it would become this big?
My initial dream was just to have some mommy and me classes with kids dancing with scarves from Africa or something. Not even a thought of what the center has become. For me it’s like my third child that I get to watch grow up because it does have a life of its own. And that’s because peace is a powerful notion and it speaks to us. Everybody wants it.

Make Good Happen
The next Center for Living Peace Summer Service Day is July 13, which is a food drive for Families Forward. Bring produce from the local farmer’s market (right next door), non-perishable food items and school supplies to make good happen with the community.

Find Peace
Take a class at the Center for Living Peace. The Center is located in the Irvine Marketplace across from UCI at 4129 Campus Drive, Irvine.
714.596.7162 :: goodhappens.org


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