Remembering Val Series: 5

Continuing in our memories of Val posts!

From Christy Fortenberry Milbourne of Central Mississippi Turtle Rescue:

I think my favorite Val memory is from the first time I ever talked to her. I’d heard her name for years, both before and after we got our individual rehab permit. In my eyes, she was like a celebrity. She had paved the way for people like me who wanted to help wildlife and I held her in very high regard. When we finally raised the money to become a 501c3, I needed advice from other rehab organizations because I simply had no idea what I was doing. I’d made friends of a few other rehabbers and they all told me that I really needed to call Val. She would be the one with the best info since she’d been doing it for so long. To say I was nervous about calling her is an understatement lol. But I finally did… and she was so kind to me. We probably talked thirty minutes to an hour as she freely and happily answered every single question I had and even added her own advice. She was genuinely excited for me and wanted to see me succeed. I felt love from her from that very first phone call. I called on her many more times after that and got to know her better and better. But it will always be that first “meeting”, that first phone call, that solidified my decision to continue down this path, and it was that first phone call when I knew that I would always have a friend and supporter in Val Smith.

From Val’s dear friend, Tracy Crump:

Touched by Val

I first met Val about a year after she founded Mississippi Wildlife Rehabilitation, when she learned that our son volunteered at Lichterman Nature Center in Memphis. She called and asked how we could collaborate. A short time later, Val presented her very first program to our homeschool 4-H group. She was so nervous about it. My mother had come along to the meeting because she loved animals, and Val said it helped her stay calm to watch my mom’s smiling face. Val kept the kids enthralled, especially when she dumped a bag of trash on the floor and had them gather round and guess how each piece of litter could be harmful to animals. The only mistake Val made was telling the group—three times—that the only way to diagnose rabies was by cutting an animal’s head off! To Val, it was just part of rehabbing, but the kids looked horrified. Their eyes got bigger and bigger each time she said it. We laughed about it later, and Val became a top-notch speaker.

We went on to work together on many projects, including her first raptor cage. My husband and son and another dad and his son went to her property several times to construct the cage. It looks tiny now compared to the newer cages built, but it allowed Val to get her federal certification in record time so she could begin caring for her beloved birds of prey.

One of the first hawks she rehabbed was a young red-tail who came to her dehydrated and emaciated. The hawk pulled through, thanks to her care, but Val soon discovered it had never learned to hunt because it apparently invented the word “clumsy.” Time after time, she released a live mouse, and the hawk would skid into the trees or her backhoe or just crash, flipping head over tail, because he was diving too fast to recover. It took three months, but he didn’t give up—just like Val. She persevered when people believed her dreams of “animal doctoring” were merely a hobby. Continuing to gain education, join organizations, and push through despite multiple sclerosis, Val built a reputation as a qualified professional one step at a time.

Val was not only soft-hearted about animals but also toward kids. When our younger son was a teen, he and a friend built a turtle habitat for MWR. But Val insisted on cooking them lunch each time they came, and she let them ride her 4-wheeler to the construction site. They thought they’d died and gone to heaven. I finally had to put a stop to the meals ATV riding so they would actually get the work done.

I published several stories and articles about Val over the years, but my favorite was about a sparrow. A woman called one morning, frantic because the tiny bird had flown into her picture window. Val said the first thing that flashed into her mind was the verse from Matthew that says “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.” When the woman brought the bird, she was weeping uncontrollably. Val sat her down and asked what was wrong.

“My husband just told me he wants a divorce,” she said. “We have three young children, and I’ve never worked outside the home. I was sitting at my dining room table considering suicide when this bird flew into my window. After that, all I could think about was getting it help.”

Val said, “Thank you, Jesus!” and for the next two hours she shared with the woman how God had walked her through dark times in her own life. That’s when Val knew God was using the animals to allow her to share Christ. What she thought was a simple ministry was something much bigger.

Later in Val’s career, I went to her house to do an interview. She, of course, insisted on cooking spaghetti for me. We sat and talked about her plans for MWR and she said, “I’m going to be 60 soon!” I didn’t really understand the significance of her remark until she said, “In 10 years, I’ll be 70!” Finally, it dawned on me that she still had so many plans she wanted to accomplish and was afraid she was running out of time. Most of us can barely plan beyond tomorrow, but Val was already looking ten years down the road, hoping for the day she could build a full-scale nature center. She was a visionary with a heart for animals as well as everyone she met.

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