Hazard, Perry County Spotlight: Dena Smith

Who are you, and what roles do you fill in your community? 

My name is Dena Smith, and I wear many hats here in Perry County. I teach Physical Education at Robinson Elementary School, I drive a school bus, and I am the assistant softball coach for Perry County Central. Over the last two years, I have also been blessed with some wonderful opportunities that have helped me grow tremendously in different areas of my life. In 2015, I was selected to be one of 16 representatives from across the state of Kentucky to serve as a School Health and Physical Education Specialist and Physical Activity Leader in my region. Under the direction of the Department of Education, I assisted in providing planning, facilitation, consultation and technical assistance to the SHAPE Network Participants – these are schools and districts regarded as highly effective at teaching and learning around Kentucky’s Core Academic Standards in health education and physical education. I served as a liaison between the Kentucky Department of Education, educational cooperatives, and other education organizations and partners. I helped identify resources and develop strategies for intervention to address health and physical education within the PL/CS Program Review. I also participated in the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Healthy Schools Program trainer program.

In 2016, I became a member of the Kids on the Move Wellness Coalition. We obtained the Investing in Kentucky’s Future Grant, whose focus is to increase the amount of physical activity each student gets throughout the school day. The program is working with both the Perry County and Hazard school systems, the UK Center of Excellence, and Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky. The initiative is also going to provide standing desks at one Perry County school, as well as at Hazard Middle School. We are trying to increase daily consumption of fresh, nutritious, locally sourced food by each student during the school day. School gardens have been incorporated at most of the schools and the students seem to enjoy the process – especially the final product! We are partnering with schools though wellness councils to build strong networks of support for healthy eating and physical activity. We are working to improve the quality of and access to locally sourced nutritious food year round for students and families. The Farmer’s Market is going to play a key role in this. We are hoping to have some “fresh stops” and maybe a voucher system for fresh fruits and vegetables in the near future. We are also working to improve the quality of, and access to, community and recreation facilities in Perry County. We will be providing money from our grant to do some updates on the Hazard Pavilion. And we are also looking into some grants to update our playgrounds and parks.


Robinson Elementary school garden, with bush peas, red leaf lettuce and green leaf lettuce.

What do you most appreciate about your community? 

I love the people here! I love that they are proud, God-fearing people. They go crazy for UK Basketball and are not afraid to speak their minds. They love the Lord. There is a church in every “holler.” They think there is nothing better than a cold Ale-8 or a Sweet Tea on a hot day. And everyone owns some sort of camo. Almost everyone you know owns a gun (or maybe ten) and shoots them on a regular basis. They like to hunt and fish and may just miss work on the first day of deer season to get a head start on that big buck! Everyone smiles and waves and we all know each other. In times of need, people pull together and help one another out. I also love that people here don’t need much but each other to be happy. A perfect day to most would be to wake up, eat some biscuits and gravy, go four-wheeling on the mountain, eat some fried chicken for supper, sit on the porch swing with granny, and then gather around a bon fire that night. They are also really family oriented. They may fuss and fight amongst themselves, but if someone else messes with one of their own, then there will be trouble! This is pretty much southeastern Kentucky in a nutshell.


What’s your vision for Hazard, and what’s a community project you’ve been a part of that makes strides towards that vision? 

I want to see Hazard and Perry County thrive. I want it to be a place that people will be proud to say they come from and a place where people will want to come visit. I want to see more hiking and biking and nature trails around our beautiful mountains. I want to see the litter and trash cleaned up out of our ditches and streams. I want to see more mom-and-pop stores come into downtown. I would love for this place to be a smaller version of Gatlinburg, Tenn. It’s beautiful here; we just need to polish things up and let people see what eastern Kentucky really could offer. I think the things we are doing with the Kids on the Move initiative is really helping to take a step in the right direction.


Who is a member of your community that you admire and why?

I admire my mother, Nadine Vannarsdall. She loves the Lord, her family and her community. She attends Summit Community Church. She volunteers her time there helping wherever she is needed. She was a teacher and principal at Dennis Wooten Elementary School in Perry County for 30 years. She always put the students’ needs first and treated her employees equal. She is the hardest worker I know. She is the most caring and selfless person I know. She volunteers at the Hospice Center in her spare time, and she helped care for my grandmother until she passed. She is the smartest person I know when it comes to pretty much everything: work, life, death, etc. She is my go-to person if I ever need advice. She raised me and my brothers and sister to be strong, independent, capable human beings. She raised us to have common sense and get around in the real world and taught us to always do things for ourselves. She taught us to stand on our own two feet and not to follow the crowd. She taught us to believe in ourselves, always be early, work hard, and do whatever it was you were dreading the most first. She is the best person I know. She has been a great role model, and if I only live up to be half the woman she is, that will be an amazing feat. I love my mom!