When Racheal noticed her daughter struggling to walk, she packed up and moved across the state—the first of Racheal’s many efforts to improve access to care for children with disabilities. In 2010, Sylie McMillian was born to Racheal Anne Smith and Tim McMillian in Giles County. Sylie lives with autism, affecting everything from her motor skills to her behavior and even her vision. After trying to access services in Middle Tennessee, Racheal moved Sylie to Chattanooga where she believed she would have better access to care. For five weeks, the pair lived in a hotel while Racheal worked relentlessly to find specialists that could help. Eventually, she succeeded in getting Sylie the services she needed, and Sylie started walking at age five. Now eight years later, Racheal says Sylie doesn’t just walk, she runs—a playful child who always has a smile on her face.
Today, Racheal and Sylie face a new hurdle: housing. Despite being on ECF CHOICES, maintaining home health aides has been a challenge for the family. Sylie requires around-the-clock specialized care, which is not readily accessible. Additionally, due to behavioral concerns and inadequate care at the state level, Sylie cannot stay in the same home as her sister, Jemma. Racheal contacted countless residential care facilities in Tennessee and neighboring states, but Sylie was continually denied services due to her age or the severity of her needs. With nowhere to turn, Racheal was advised to surrender Sylie into DCS custody to get her care—a dilemma she says many Tennessee families are facing. Racheal hopes to collaborate in the future to change current policies that limit the assistance families who are experiencing targeted, aggressive and violent behaviors between children can receive. She says this is particularly important in cases where developmentally disabled children pose health and safety concerns for all family members.
There is a stereotype that parents who need safety net services do not take care of their kids, but for Racheal and her blended family, this could not be further from the truth. Sylie and Jemma are loved and cared for by Racheal, Tim, and Racheal’s husband, James Smith. Racheal says James is incredibly supportive and is like a father to Sylie. Tim also plays an integral role in Sylie’s care and recently moved her into his home. While a necessary step to ensure both daughters remain safe, Racheal says the separation has caused everyone to reimagine their lives. Still, she remains committed to making these sacrifices until a care facility becomes available.
In the meantime, Racheal continues to fight for policy changes that would improve the lives of not only her family but also countless Tennessee families who lack the necessary support. Throughout her career, Racheal has helped individuals with disabilities and criminal records gain employment, so when she found herself struggling for years to get a job due to the demands of Sylie’s caretaking, she made a promise to help caregivers facing the same barriers. She started in her community—speaking to the city council, school boards, and parents—and worked her way up to eventually being appointed by Commissioner Brad Turner to the East Tennessee Planning and Policy Council where she makes recommendations to the state as to how to improve health programs. Prior to her appointment, she had long worked with the Council on its TN Scholars program which teaches self-advocacy to individuals and families with disabilities.
Racheal embodies the mission of the Tennessee Justice Center through her conviction that every individual with disabilities should have access to the full health services they need to thrive. TJC is honored to recognize Racheal Smith as a 2023 Mother of the Year for being an unyielding force for her family and a tireless advocate for the East Tennessee community.