Avon joins fight against ALS in honor of Victoria woman, one of nation's top sellers

Nov. 5, 2011 at 6:05 a.m.
Updated Nov. 6, 2011 at 5:06 a.m.

Sophia Smith, sitting in her wheelchair next to her husband, Randy, touches the Avon Yellow Rose necklace named after her that was presented to her during the official Avon ALS fundraiser kickoff at the San Antonio Marriott Northwest. An ALS specialist, Stanley Appel, testified before Congress that ALS is ". not incurable, it's underfunded." Proceeds from selling the necklace, created in Smith's honor, will be donated to fighting the disease.

Sophia Smith, sitting in her wheelchair next to her husband, Randy, touches the Avon Yellow Rose necklace named after her that was presented to her during the official Avon ALS fundraiser kickoff at the San Antonio Marriott Northwest. An ALS specialist, Stanley Appel, testified before Congress that ALS is ". not incurable, it's underfunded." Proceeds from selling the necklace, created in Smith's honor, will be donated to fighting the disease.

Twenty-six years after their wedding day, Randy Smith walks his bride down the aisle.

This time she is in front of him, donning a black and white polka dot dress and ballet flats.

As a clapping crowd of several dozen burst to their feet at the sight of her, Randy leans forward to toggle the joystick on his wife's electric wheelchair.

The only arm she can move is busy blanketing her sobs - the only sound that can now escape her thin and wide lips.

The crowd roars still.

The legend, the icon, Sophia Smith has arrived.

20 years ago

They had married after four months of dating and started making babies right away - Jeff, Zach, Karen, all within four years.

"Gosh, her spirit. It was her spirit. Just full bore ahead, can-do attitude," Randy says about his wife. "You pay attention to her."

He tosses a 2004 "Avon Dreams" publication onto his desk and flips to a three-page spread with as much fervor as a boy with a dirty magazine.

Sophia's dark pink lips explode from the page. Wearing black leather, she straddles a Harley, and Randy's smirk says, "Told you so."

She's beautiful, and he's proud, plain and simple.

Randy's a biker, too, with scruff on his face and a bandana sometimes on his head when he's not in the office. He's not much tall or big, but he has presence. It takes a good 10 minutes of conversation to realize he's warm and not so intimidating.

More than 20 years ago, while Randy was starting a new business in Victoria and three kids were running around their three-bedroom house, Sophia was fired from her job as a waitress.

"She got fired for selling more Avon than she did food," Randy says.

Sophia soon sprang from scouting neighborhoods (what Randy calls the "original ding-dong lady") to developing a nationwide business that landed her consistently in the top 10 among Avon salespeople in the 650,000-U.S.-member trade.

She'd sometimes leave home before the sun came up and return after midnight, replacing her Harley for a van stuffed with Avon product. She'd travel across the country, from Las Vegas to New York, booking job fairs and growing her business.

Along the way, she was doing what she does best - talking. She shared her business savvy with everyone from a homeless man to a woman working at Grandy's to support four kids.

She never met a stranger.

"What's your name? Where are you from? What do you do? Are you married?"

Her colleagues in Avon shared the same story about the first time they met Sophia. The questions compounded, but Sophia always remembered their answers.

Besides the bombshell pink lipstick, Sophia, now 53, looks natural in the photos taken of her over the years. She looks as if she were just born that cool, her blonde-streaked hair somehow windblown even indoors. She's naturally thin. Her large cheekbones and the rest of her face seem to be supported by a long, popping smile.

It would be easy to see her as intimidating, too, but her colleagues call her nurturing, along with legendary and iconic.

"The way she's always measured her success is by the success of those that she works with," Randy says.

Randy talks about the philosophy Sophia's shared with well more than the 1,503 people who make up her most immediate downline - the tiers of representatives she has recruited to Avon.

"You get up every morning, you do what you do best, and you do it every day, all day," he says. "If you'll do that, then there's nothing you can't accomplish. Absolutely nothing."

Randy's bottom eyelids begin to redden.

It is as if he realizes the philosophy that has lofted them through life isn't as cut-and-dried as they'd proclaimed.

There is at least one thing that could bring it all to a halt.

One year ago

The first symptoms came - where else? - at an Avon show in 2010.

Sophia had dropped a knife. Soreness began to swell in her hand.

By Thanksgiving, a doctor's murmurs of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis had the family researching the unfamiliar disease.

By January of this year, the diagnosis was confirmed.

"We've been planning things. This year was going to be the year to remodel the house. I was going to start going on all the trips with her," Randy says. "We were planning to start doing all these things, and then - boom - here comes the ALS."

The family would get a crash course in the disease that would steal Sophia's ability to move, to talk, to eventually breathe.

ALS is a disease that to those unaffected might incite the term "only."

Only about 5,000 people are diagnosed each year in America. Only 5,000 die each year. That leaves a pretty steady number of only 30,000 bodies in a 300 million-bodied population who are slowly wasting away from it.

But to the Smith family - and to the thousands of Avon representatives who have heard about the superstar that is Sophia Smith - ALS is a disease that put a three- to five-year timeline on a life that seemingly had so much more good left to do.

"She doesn't want to die. She wants to live," Randy says. "What's bad about this disease is that such a strong-willed, strong-spirited person has just had the legs knocked out from under her, and she's always looking for a hope that's not there."

By now, Randy says he didn't know a grown man could cry so much.

That average lifespan of three to five years is what the Smiths have been counting on.

But Sophia's disease is progressing - a cruelly contradictory medical term - quickly.

Within six months of a diagnosis, the disease consumed her trademark gabbing. On a feeding tube, she takes breathing treatments twice a day and has been in a wheelchair for a few months.

"This year's been full of doing something for the last time, and that is so weird," Randy says. "I can remember the last time she drove a car. Little things."

There was also that last Harley ride and the last time the family took a walk on the beach. Sophia loves the beach. Her dream, she says in the "Avon Dreams" article, is to buy a home on the water.

When Randy talks about the lasts, he's wearing a Harley Davidson button-up, patterned with motorcycles and palm trees. His wrists are layered with ALS rubber bracelets, and a blue-stripped ALS ribbon is pinned to his chest.

"This wasn't supposed to happen so fast. She wanted to be a spokesperson. She lost her voice before she could be a spokesperson for the battle of ALS," he says.

One month ago

"I-t w-i-l-l h-e-l-p a-l-l."

Her vocals are gone, yes. But Sophia's voice is as fierce as ever.

She communicates now by spelling out words on an iPad application that speaks them in a computerized voice.

"It will help all," Sophia says about her latest mission - finding a treatment for ALS.

She's thinner now, her hair thinner, too. Her lips are void of any vibrant color, but they're just as pronounced.

She's still outspoken, still opinionated, her daughter Karen says. To beckon, Sophia rings a doorbell that chimes through the whole house. The two have started watching "Harry Potter" movies together, both perched in recliners.

Sophia pecks out her thoughts on the iPad.

"Maybe it was meant to be this way," she says. "What else can you think, but that someone has to stand up and fight?"

She's standing up to the fight while stuck in the recliner in the master bedroom of her two-story home.

With her left hand, she trains, encourages and even gets the latest business gossip from many Avon representatives via posts on her Facebook page.

When Andrea Jung, the CEO of Avon, called to ask Sophia what she needed during her illness, Sophia's priorities still rested in the women whose successes she helped create.

"I asked her to protect the reps. Always support them," Sophia says.

But brewing beyond the everyday business was a job perfectly suited for the network of Avon representatives.

The belief, which ALS specialist Stanley Appel testified before Congress, is that ALS is not an incurable disease. It's simply underfunded.

It needs awareness, and it needs money - what Randy calls just dirty paper.

"I'm ready to fight ALS. Let's get it on," he says. "It's killing my wife. My bride. It's personal. It's a grudge."

Avon would be the perfect channel for his anger. Avon's niche in multi-level marketing and its vast network would be the perfect vehicle for a new frontier in the fight against ALS.

When he's not taking care of Sophia, Randy has been conspiring with Avon and the ALS Therapy Development Institute for a nationwide fundraiser.

It's to kick off in a few weeks, he tells Sophia in their bedroom, at an event in San Antonio.

"It's going to be pretty big, especially if Hollywood can make it," Randy says, nudging toward his wife.

Sophia, who her family jokes is as bossy as ever, throws her hair from side to side in protest.

Besides the health risks that come with being around a lot of people, the tried-and-true Avon lady says she doesn't want to be remembered like this.

"Look at me," says Randy, whose intensity puts up a good fight with Sophia's. "You know all those ladies who are going to be there? They are there to see you."

"We'll see," she says.

But everyone knows she's not about to back down in the wake of ALS.

She'll be there.


"Did you ever know that you're my hero and everything I would like to be?"

Bette Midler's song fills the room as a photo of Sophia's arms wrapped around the neck of her husband fades into her cheek giving rest to a daughter's kiss.

After zigzagging through the crowd, Sophia has parked her wheelchair in the front row of the Avon meeting to listen to testimonies of the lives she's shaped.

She peers at photos from her childhood, from her kids' childhood and from the places she's been during two decades with Avon.

While Sophia's hair falls flatter in more recent pictures, Randy's grows longer.

After her diagnosis, he vowed he wouldn't cut it until they found a cure.

"Welcome to the fight, Avon, because this old boy here has a lifetime ahead of him to help find a cure for ALS," he tells the crowd gathered for Sophia.

This is the night thousands more than the "only" join the fight against ALS.

This is the night Avon debuts the Sophia Smith Yellow Rose Necklace.

Inspired by her favorite flower and favorite gem, pearls, the necklace embodies as much of Sophia's taste as it does her relentless spirit.

Sophia's colleagues call the fight against ALS personal, too, and they promise to keep up with the necklace orders they're already receiving from across the country.

With all profits going directly to the ALS Therapy Development Institute, Randy says the goal is to channel the entire Avon community to sell 1 million necklaces.

"I made a vow to my wife that I was going to fight ALS forever and that I'd make her famous," he says.

He's talking faster now, running the emotional gamut from sad to angry to excited.

"That ain't enough. I gotta think about that," he says. "Maybe 10 million. I might get a haircut for a million."

Avon corporate employees wrap the gleaming stone around Sophia's neck and surprise her with the first of a new Avon award, The Yellow Rose.

The rose dipped in 24 karat gold will for years honor Avon leaders who demonstrate courage, strength, dignity and perseverance.

Sophia's long lips widen further, and she gives the most powerful form of approval she can muster now - a thumbs up.



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