Sand Lake Elementary teacher remembered as ‘everybody’s mom’

Karen Smith taught first grade for 10 years at Sand Lake Elementary. She died of brain cancer Nov. 9 at age 61.

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  • | 1:39 p.m. November 20, 2018
Among many things, Karen Smith will be remembered for her warm, welcoming smile.
Among many things, Karen Smith will be remembered for her warm, welcoming smile.
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Karen Skrmetta Smith was the type of teacher whose dedication to her students knew no bounds. 

She was known for her selflessness, sense of humor and loving and caring nature. The Southern belle from Mississippi had a heart of gold and a warm smile that lit up the halls of Sand Lake Elementary, where she was a teacher.

“When you think of any type of teacher that you would want for your child … I think she comes to mind, because she was just full of love.” 

— Kimber Peluso, teacher, Sand Lake Elementary

Smith died Nov. 9, 2018, after a long battle with brain cancer. She was 61 years old. Prior to her passing, she taught first grade at Sand Lake Elementary for 10 years.

“I think at the school and among her students, she’ll be remembered for her passion for teaching,” Karen’s son, Jason Smith, said. “She was never there for a paycheck. She was there because she loved it. She loved and cared for each and every one of her students. … She was just a really gifted teacher, and I think she was proud of that. I know I was.”

Karen Smith devoted much of her life to her son, Jason.
Karen Smith devoted much of her life to her son, Jason.

Smith and her son were both born and raised in Gulfport, Mississippi. Before moving to Orlando, they already considered it a home away from home as they took annual vacations to Walt Disney World.

“Every year growing up, we would always go to Disney World,” Jason Smith said, adding they moved to the area after Hurricane Katrina. “That was our big family vacation, and she loved it, and I think that’s another reason she just loved the city of Orlando so much. It always felt like a home for her.”

After moving to Orlando, Smith began teaching Sand Lake Elementary, where she fostered the minds of many students — and even some teachers. First-grade teacher Kara Peluso and her twin sister, Kimber, who teaches fourth grade, each said Karen’s passion made her an outstanding teacher to her students and to her colleagues.

“She was an amazing teacher, and she really specialized in teaching her kids how to read,” Kara Peluso said, adding Karen would make her reading lessons into games to make them fun. “She took so much time with them to help them develop that skill and love of reading.”

“When you think of any type of teacher that you would want for your child … I think she comes to mind, because she was just full of love,” Kimber Peluso said. “Teaching is a very rewarding and challenging career, and Karen always made sure to be a pillar of strength and support for her colleagues and always made you remember the ‘why?’ of teaching: to always keep the students and your children at the forefront of everything you did.”

Kimberly McNally teaches fourth grade and had been friends with Smith all 10 years she taught at Sand Lake Elementary. 

“I think Karen will be remembered the most for being a positive light in everybody’s life and … her willingness to go above and beyond for her students and her fellow teachers,” McNally said. “She also was known to purchase items at a teacher store that is not known to be very cheap, but she didn’t care, because it was the best and she wanted her students to have it.”

Kindergarten teacher Judy Ortega recounted a memory that further demonstrates Smith’s willingness to go above and beyond for her students. She said prior to a class field trip one year, all but one of Karen’s students turned in permission slips to attend the field trip. The student lived in an apartment complex near the school, so Smith took it upon herself to get the permission slip signed so the student wouldn’t miss out.

“She (Karen) goes to the apartment complex near the school where that child (lived),” Ortega said. “She knew (the child) lived there, but she wasn’t sure which apartment it was. So, she went door to door asking, ‘Does anybody know which apartment this student (lives in)?’ And she got the signature, and the girl was able to go on the field trip.”

Krissy Mahon, who teaches first grade, didn’t know Karen long, but the two grew a bond in the time they worked together. Mahon said Karen was one of the reasons she loved working at Sand Lake Elementary.

“I only worked with Karen for a year,” Mahon said. “The bond that I made with her in one year — she was so incredible and just welcoming — was a big part of the reason that I loved this school when I came here.”

Mahon added because of Smith’s maternal nature, she always would go to her seeking comfort.

“The word that comes to mind when I think of Karen is, ‘mom,’” Mahon said. “She was kind of everybody’s mom on the team, and you went to her for comfort (or) for a laugh. As a first-year teacher, it was hard, and I remember going into her room almost every day just for a laugh.”

Karen was a great mother figure to her friends and co-workers, but to her son, she was the greatest mom in the world.

“She was the greatest mom ever,” Smith said. “It sounds silly and everybody probably thinks that, but to me, that’s very true.”


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