Deb Maxwell '14 - Smile Through the Storm

Deb Maxwell

Deb Maxwell ‘14 started her favorite career at age 17 when she became a mother. Born and raised on top of Jerusalem Hill just outside of Elmira, Deb spent her childhood exploring the lush region of the Finger Lakes. Deb ended up dropping out of high school and opted for her GED when she became pregnant with her first child. She would marry into the military and leave the Southern Tier for the first time in 1981. Deb and her husband travelled the country through his military service for many years before she returned to Elmira.

In 2010, with her children grown, Deb decided it was time to do something for herself and enrolled at Corning Community College. The location was convenient and she loved the people she met while at the school. As a mother with adult children, Deb was definitely not a traditional student. Her life experience was crucial to her success that first year at CCC. She took a break after her second semester to care for her daughter, who became very ill in 2011. Deb did not let this setback stop her. She became more determined to get her degree and returned to CCC two years later in the fall of 2013 pursuing a human services degree.

Deb knew she wanted to help others and work directly with people in need. In 2014, Deb graduated from CCC with honors, but not without another huge setback that would change her life forever. On March 5, 2014 Deb’s youngest son, David, who had struggled with depression, took his own life.

“To say that I was shattered is putting it in words that some may understand.” Deb shut down. However, the way the staff and faculty at CCC supported and consoled her during those tremendously dark times was extremely comforting. Through their help, as well as support from others around her, Deb received her degree and was able to walk during Commencement in May of 2014.

Deb attended local grief support meetings a few times over the summer, but despite the amazing folks she met in these groups, few understood grief as a suicide survivor. This led Deb to find an organization specific for those left behind by suicide. Using the knowledge she had acquired while studying human services and the pain from the loss of her son, Deb created “Smile through the Storms,” and held the first group meeting in December of 2014.

“Smile through the Storms” is now celebrating a decade of work. Since its inception, the organization has grown not just regionally, but nationally. During the COVID pandemic, meetings had to be held virtually opening them up to people across the country to share their stories and their grief as they work to heal from their loss. For the past six years they have held an annual toy drive, and this past winter they received almost $3,200 worth of donations that they delivered to four locations in Elmira including the homeless shelter, the Elmira Psychiatric Center, and both Arnot and Guthrie Hospitals. They also create ornaments to decorate a tree in Eldridge Park to honor those lost to suicide. At the end of each holiday season, the ornaments are sent to the families of the survivors.

In September 2024, “Smile through the Storms” will host their first survivors retreat at Watson Homestead. They are also currently looking for a home to host in-person/hybrid meetings in Elmira. You can find more information about “Smile through the Storms” through their website and Facebook page. You can also make donations in support of their mission through the Community Foundation.

Deb would like future students to know that CCC is a fantastic place to start paving the path for where you want to go. She is continually thankful for people like Eric Smith, Debbie Thomas, Darael Ann Mahoney, and others at CCC that made her experience amazing and whose encouragement was key to her success.