CHICAGO - She was one of the first women in Illinois to be sentenced to death row, and after spending almost two decades in prison, she has made it her mission to help people in her community who she says have been forgotten.
Now, she needs your help.
Geraldine Mabry Smith is a community activist, a survivor and the first woman in Illinois to be sentenced to death row shortly after the death penalty was reenacted in 1977.
She served almost two decades in prison at the Dwight Correctional Center, with six of those years in solitary confinement for a murder for hire plot against her boyfriend’s wife. Geraldine maintained her innocence and her verdict was eventually reduced, but it was 19 years before she was able to walk out a free woman.
She vividly remembers the day she was taken away from her baby boy.
"He was 8 months old and still today I can remember the look on his eyes and the yearning he had for me when the police took him from my side,” she said.
Geraldine says she spent her time behind bars mentoring women. When she was finally free, she made that her mission to help mothers in prison and the children they leave behind. That’s how her program “CHIPS” was born: ‘Children Having Incarcerated Parents.’
“The hardest part of prison wasn't the fact I was on death row, but the hardest part of prison is to understand I'm separated from my baby,” she said.
So every year through her non-profit organization, "Life Builders United,” Geraldine and her volunteers hold an annual Christmas party for those children and others in the Englewood community. Last year, she served thousands and this year she believes the need will be even greater.
"What I do is I bring them all together. This is an annual celebration for them. This is the time to make them feel loved, to let them know we care,” she said.
So while volunteers scramble to decorate and transform the room into a candy land for the kids, Geraldine and her team struggle to find donations. She says Englewood is considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country, but she has one message for everyone watching her story.
"Help me to help these children so that my help could be wider and broader and that we all could please the heart of God; that is my message,” she said.
Geraldine is hoping the hard lessons she learned from prison will help her build better lives for mothers and children in her community, and that much of that help will come from caring strangers who may never step foot in Englewood but want to help her make a difference.
FOX 32 reached out to the non-profit group "Good City Chicago" and it is working with a company to donate 50 cases of water for the Life Builders Christmas party.
The party will be held Dec. 23rd. They are looking for toys, food, clothing, and anything to help out.
If you would like to donate, you can go to their website or call 773-504-2125.